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Many people think the parliament has no real powers compared to the council or the commission. What is the reality?
It’s not at all true that the European Parliament has no powers. Indeed, Europe decides 60 to 70 per cent of your domestic agenda, so if you are comfortable with 60, 70 per cent of what affects your life being decided by people who have wildly diverging interests to your own, then go ahead and ignore the parliament. Otherwise, it’s not a very wise choice to remain unengaged with what happens here.
What are some of the victories that have been achieved in the parliament then?
One major victory was stopping the corporate idea of software patenting – we managed to stop it completely. We won improved regulation for food additives; we won some demands on energy savings. But our main success in this period has been stopping worse disasters. This last parliament has been a very difficult one because progressives do not have a majority, but we have blocking minorities that at least prevent things from being utterly dreadful.
What are the obstacles to greater change?
The problem is that for so many issues, we have the joint EPP-PES conservative-‘socialist’ majority, so on the services directive [which undermines public services and workers’ rights], for example, we weren’t able to do anything good. It’s very difficult to overcome the EPP-PES grand coaltion – it’s part of the system.
The lack of the right to propose legislation is a key problem. It is not acceptable that the commission both has executive power and is the sole institution with the power to suggest things.
What can be done to tackle the lobbyists?
The most important thing, even beyond structural changes, is to regulate lobbying better, with painful punishment for not following the rules. Have every lobbyist submit their written proposals for consideration and listed within a public register so that we know who is behind every different idea and suggestion to the parliament – one third for industry lobbyists, one third for NGOs and one third for trade unions and other public interests.
How is the make-up of the parliament changing?
Traditionally the parliament would come up with some of the most progressive positions out of the three institutions and still does at times, but tragically this is not always the case any more. After enlargement, we have seen a conservative shift, with the commission from time to time being more radical than the parliament. One has to recognise, however, that in these new countries there was an understandable reaction to communism, and people wanted to vote for something that appeared very different. This means then that progressives need to more successfully organise in the east. The Greens are growing in eastern Europe now, but still not enough to win seats.
But my biggest concern is that the European Union has power over too many issues. EU legislation should be the exception and not the rule.