European Parliament joins stampede away from democracy
July 22, 2008 11:41 | by Steve McGiffen
The European Parliament changed its rules this month.
Anyone still reading?
Surely the European Parliament doesn't have any real power anyway?
Surely it's just a talking shop where pompous windbags repeatedly stand up to demonstrate their "European" credentials while the rest of us get on with our lives?
Well, not quite.
Certainly the "pompous windbags" part is true, though it's hardly fair to the minority of Euro-MPs who have tried to stand in the way as the European Union has trampled over our rights as citizens, workers, consumers, as human beings.
The part about it not having any real power is nonsense, however. Increasingly, the European Parliament has what is known in EU circles as "co-decision power", which means just what the phrase says. In a growing number of legislative areas, including virtually all environmental issues and most social and labour matters, the assembly is an equal partner with the Council of Ministers, the body which directly represents the twenty-seven member states. Its powers have grown with each successive treaty since Maastricht, in 1992.
The "europhiles" would have us believe that this means that the EU's famous "democratic deficit" is being closed, but this simply isn't the case. The new powers granted to the European Parliament have not been at the expense of unelected centralised institutions but, on the contrary, they have been transferred from elected national parliaments and elected national governments.
When I first worked as an assistant to a Labour Euro-MP 23 years ago, corporate lobbyists were thin on the ground. Now, you can't move for the representatives of major corporations who use (sometimes quite literally) foot in the door techniques to get the attention of MEPs whose votes now exercise a huge influence on Europe-wide legislation.
So the fact that the European Parliament has just voted to do away with its own democratic procedures should concern us.
This is especially the case when you consider the response to the Irish people's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Just a few days later, the leaders of the 27 held a meeting on the implementation of this same treaty. Their response to the Irish vote? It didn't even appear on the agenda!
The European Parliament's rule change means that the two big political groups, the Tweedledum of the centre-right European People's Party and the Tweedledee of Labour's so-called Party of European Socialists, will now exercise complete control over business conducted in the assembly.
Firstly, twenty-five members from seven countries instead of twenty from six will be required to form a political group. Two existing groups, the euro-sceptic Independence/Democracy Group (ID) and the rightwing Union for a Europe of the Nations (UEN) would fail one or the other test.
The argument that the new rules will make it harder for fascists to form a group is a disgrace to anyone on the left that uses it. Fascists must be confronted politically in elected assembles as well as out on the streets, not by procedural trickery.
A further rule will exclude MEPs from forming groups unless they hold similar political opinions. The ID group would also fall foul of this, containing as it does MEPs from the right, as well as some who hold quite progressive opinions. They are bound together by a belief in the primacy of national sovereignty, but it is unclear under the new rules whether this will be enough.
Even the United Left Group could have problems with this rule. The full name of the group, which contains all MEPs to the left of social democratic and labour parties, is the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).
Its long-winded title reflects genuine tensions within the group to do with historic splits which go back to the range of attitudes to the Soviet Union found on the European anti-capitalist left. But it isn't all history, and quite serious differences remain.
The group is held together, however, by its commitment to burying those differences in order to combat neo-liberalism, but when it comes, for example, to reform of the EU's agricultural policies, parties from north and south will often vote different ways.
Hence the "confederal". The individual national parties retain their autonomy.
The Greens form a group with progressive regionalists, the Greens/EFA. The latter element, which includes Plaed Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists, organises as a group-within-a-group, as does the Nordic Green Left within the GUE/NGL. Once again, it is unclear whether this will continue to be acceptable.
This aspect of the new rules will also make life harder for MEPs who are expelled from their groups for not toeing the line. As things stand, other groups will often invite them to join. Admittedly, this is largely out of self-interest. In the European Parliament, bigger means better. More money, more speaking time, more kudos.
Yet there is another motive, which is a desire to see men and women who were, after all, elected by the people of their countries, allowed to continue to do their jobs. This is apparently of no concern to the two big groups.
In another change, a totally undemocratic "filter system", purportedly designed to eliminate "silly, irrelevant or offensive questions" was also installed. Who will decide which questions fall into these categories? The holder of the European Parliament presidency, a job carved out between the two big groups, of course.
As the European Parliament acquires more and more power, it becomes ever more important to the antidemocratic forces now ruling Europe to keep it under control. The rule changes may not seem to be of that much importance when set against the blatant contempt for democracy shown in the EU establishment's reaction to successive referendum defeats, but they are another small but significant indication that, unless we wake up to what is going on, democracy may turn out to have been a whim of the twentieth century.
Steve McGiffen is Spectrezine's editor. From 1986 to 1999 he worked as an assistant to a Member of the European Parliament, and then spent five years as a member of the secretariat of the United European Left political group.