The EU-institutions: the European Parliament (Part I)

Today we will resume the analysis of the EU-institutions. After the Council of the EU and the EU-Commission, the third VIP of the EU-institutions is the European Parliament. Unlike these two other babies, the Parliament’s seat is located in Strasburg, making it a bit more “aloof” from the usual European madness – although some of its organs are in Brussels and Luxemburg and most of the work is done in Brussels. It represents the interests of the peoples of the Member States. The President is elected for two years and a half, renewable once: currently, the German Martin Schulze (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats S&D) is the President. However, let’s be clear: the Parliament does not hold the same powers as a national Parliament as it does not strictly own the legislative power.

The European Parliament is a big piece in the EU panorama, and since it represents the citizens we reckon it deserves a significant space in our series – at least more than it has in the reality. We will hence divide its situation into two articles: this one will focus on its structure, organization and functioning, while the next one will deal with its attributions.

Originally, the European Parliament was the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) when the ECSC was created. It was a very different organ than it is now of course, and this Assembly was composed of delegates that the national Parliaments designated within them or that were directly elected. A legal act from 1976, the “act concerning the election of the representatives of the Assembly by direct universal suffrage”, established that the principle of the single vote would be the election system in place in every country, and that votes would be organized everywhere during the same period of time. In addition, it was decided that every EU-citizen residing in a State of which he is not a citizen could legally vote and be eligible in the State in which he resides. So, if you are a German living in Finland, you can vote there and even be eligible. How cool is that, Germany now finally has a chance to rule the world! However, finding an agreement regarding the number of representatives from each State was slightly more problematic – and still is. Nowadays, there are 751 Members, as set out by the Lisbon Treaty (Germany having 96 and Malta 6), but following the effective Brexit the number and distribution of MEPs per country will change – the UK currently has 73 MEPs that will need to be divided into 27 Member States following precise proportionality rules: headache in sight! Since 2003, there are two systems in place to elect the Eurodeputies: either within the framework of regional constituencies (this is the case in France for instance), or within the framework of national constituencies (Spain, Denmark, etc.). In a regional constituency system, the allocation depends on the total population of each constituency. In any case, the proportional representation is the voting system in place in every Member State.

The MEPs status is determined by the same legal document from 1976, but the measures that it contains either refer to the treaties or to application measures of treaties that have never been adopted, or else to national legislations. In other words: it is not of much help. It does, however, clarify the length of the term of a MEP, which is of five years, along with a bunch of other stuffs like the possibility to cumulate European and national jobs, the incompatibility of a MEP job with a national government or EU-institution job, the privilege of the non-accountability (no judicial proceedings nor detention measures during the term), the fixing of financial allowances (until 2009 those allowances were set out by the States, but there were so many disparities and abuses that it has been decided to grant all of them around €8.000/month). If you multiply this amount by 751 MEPs, that is a great deal of money – too much money actually when you know the implication and the usefulness of some of them within the EU-processes. And here is the problem: MEPs receive this allowance as long as they sit in half of the sessions – if they do not, they still get an allowance but officially with lesser amounts. However, MEPs showing up at less than half of the sessions is something that has already happened in the past, and they have never been sanctioned. Also, they are each entitled to a full-time assistant of course, along with some other benefits like €4.300/month for “general fees”, €304/day when there is a session in Strasburg (around four days a month) and €22.000/month (yes, you did read correctly) to pay for their assistants, personal staff, trainees and other Minions that will happily do all the work: that is around €8.000+€4.300+€304*4+€22.000=€35.516/month . To sum up, they can do half of the job they are paid for and still receive at least €34.300/month (you just need to take away the Strasburg sessions days). Personally, I am not happy with that, and I reckon that a reform is needed and that the costs need to be reduced and proportional to the efforts they put in. You do not show up at work? Then you do not get paid and get fired, just like anybody else in the real world. Occasionally, they even have the guts to complain, saying that people in Strasburg are not nice, or that going to Strasburg four days a month when you live in Brussels is not convenient, which is why they skip the sessions. Poor them…

Regarding its functioning, the European Parliament adopts its very own regulations and rules following every EU-enlargement. The President has a significant role: he chairs the plenary sessions and represents the Parliament to other EU-institutions and to international organizations. Martin Schulze, the current President, is a nice person. He speaks a bunch of languages, is a keen Europhile, smiling, and bonus: he is not reluctant to shaking hands with you even though you are not a “big fish”, so for that particular reason I like him – now that shows how little they have to do to be different from these Brussels high officials.

The Bureau of the Parliament holds powers related to the finances of the Parliament: it deals with the financing of the political groups and elaborates the preliminary draft estimates of the Parliament’s expenditure. The Bureau is made up of the President of the Parliament, the Vice-President, and Quaestors (experts owning a consultative role).

The Conference of Presidents brings together the President of the Parliament and the presidents of the political groups. It was given functions regarding the organization of the European Parliament (timetable, sitting agendas).

The Committees are divided into two groups: the permanent Committees and the temporal Committees. There are 20 permanent ones (Foreign Affairs, budget, etc.), which have a double role: preparing the role of the European Parliament for the plenary sessions and maintaining relations with the European Commission and the EU-Council in-between the plenary sessions. They are, in other words, the equivalent of the COREPER of the EU-Council (for more information see note “The EU-institutions: the Council of the European Union”) and the working groups of the European Commission (for more information please refer to article “The EU-institutions: the European Commission” from June, 14th 2016). As regards to the temporary Committees, they result from the Maastricht Treaty, and they investigate the misimplementations and the violations allegations to the laws of the EU. They are hence created occasionally upon request of at least one quarter of the Member States (seven currently). They cannot, however, be created for just any matter, and they meet their end when they deliver the reports to the European Parliament – thanks to which the Parliament can then take legal actions.

Now let’s jump to the political groups within the Parliament. MEPs do not have to necessarily belong to a political group, but most do because let’s face it: it provides MEPs with some very convenient benefits. Indeed, each group is granted premises, staff, a number of seats in the permanent Committees, a speaking time, the possibility to ask verbal questions to the Parliament, the possibility to deposit a motion of censure, substantial financial benefits, etc. Now to make up a political group requires little: the minimum number of MEPs is 25 coming from at least a quarter of the number of Member States. There are now eight political groups: two main ones (the Group of the European People’s Party is the main right-wing party, and there is also the main left-wing Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), and six smaller ones, amongst which the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (created in June 2015). The MEPs that do not belong to any political group do not enjoy these benefits, and they are known as non-attached Members. Finally, it is worth adding that a political group meets two or three days ahead of each plenary session to agree on a strategy.

The frequency of the sessions is not fixed. Strictly, there is only one annual session, which usually takes place the second Tuesday of March. This session has the particularity to never close (hence the “annual session”), meaning that the Parliament sits in various sessions within the framework of this session (four days a month in Strasburg, and two days in Brussels, except in August). It also sits after the election of the MEPs – that is every five years. It can also sit in an extraordinary session upon request of a majority of the Member States, the EU-Council or the European Commission. The sessions are public unless stipulated otherwise. The plenary sessions are held in Strasburg, the parliamentary Committees are in Brussels and the General Secretariat is in Luxemburg – confuzzling, isn’t it? Three locations obviously bring unnecessary costs, as well as unnecessary complications. The voting systems used are the freehand vote, the roll-call vote, the electronic vote or the ballot paper. For a vote to be effective, the absolute majority is needed. About 3600 permanent staff work for the Parliament and are divided into 12 Directorates-General, which together make up for the Secretariat.

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Dear Brexiters, dear EU-sceptics (part II)

This article is the follow-up of “Dear Brexiters, dear EU-sceptics (part I)” from June, 27th 2016. This will also be the last one of our series on the Brexit, because there are many more important things to talk about – even though I give you that it still comes as a schock for many of us. We have heard many random things saying that the Brexit won’t happen for various reasons and that we should keep believing the UK will stay, but let’s cut to the chase: it won’t, and we need to stop hoping for something that just won’t happen. If anything, that would just be anti-democratic, and the lack of democracy basically is one of the major problems nowadays.

If we think globally: who in the world will benefit from the Brexit? The answer seems clear: everyone, especially China, Russia and the USA. Why? Because they were already the most powerful countries. The EU as a whole was not even a match for them in terms of global influence, and without the UK it loses quite some weight. Eventually I hope the EU will get stronger if it equips itself with a real common diplomacy – the UK was a strong opponent to this, so now it might actually be possible. The Brexit in that respect is a chance for the EU to play a bigger role on the international stage, and as a consequence to represent an alternative to the USA, China and Russia.

For the UK, however, it will be very hard to play a significant role in our globalized world. It will most likely follow the American diplomacy, but it seems unlikely that it will be of any weight on the international scene. It will try, because its ambitions have always been huge, but with the current geopolitics I do not see how it could regain its former glory. Colonization and wars are no options anymore.

As far as diplomacy is concerned, I think it was a pretty bad and stupid move to vote out of the EU. It is literally chaos in the Middle East, terrorism strikes on EU-soil and you pull out of a bloc because you think that the EU-laws on immigration are responsible for the flow of undocumented immigrants, and that among this illegal immigration terrorists hide? This is just nonsense, you won’t be able to stop illegal immigration: you will only have succeeded in being left alone in the war against terrorism. The EU would have been the solution, had it taken care of the problem satisfactorily. But let me remind you Brits that your government contributed to the EU not taking any good decision immigration wise: these laws and deals did not just magically appear, they came from our governments.

Economically, the EU will probably make your life harder than it really needs to be. The UK might rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), just like it was a part before joining the EU, in order to still be a part of the European Economic Area (EEA), with all the benefits that this status grants to its members. However, this is when things could get complicated: this status also implies obligations, which are to respect the “four freedoms” that are the free movement of goods, services, capitals and… people. The latter will probably be a problem, because immigration is one of the main reasons why the UK decided to leave the EU. There is absolutely no way that the EU bends over and lets the UK assume some obligations and leave others aside. The solution will probably be this one: the UK will have to accept the free movement of persons, but will try to cut its social aids to the immigrants as much as possible. Also, just like Norway and Switzerland, it will have to contribute to some extent to the budget in order to keep the EEA running. The UK will probably have to compromise a lot more than the EU, which as said before will be in a position of strength because of its size. But this is just theoretical, maybe the UK won’t rejoin the EFTA. However, I am confident that the UK’s economic links to the EU will still be strong, but I highly doubt they will be as strong as when it was still an EU-country, because the EU Member States will give priority to other EU-countries, meaning the UK will have to find new allies to fill the loss of income – and Latin America and the Caribbean seems like a fair bet.

There is also a huge political domestic risk for the UK to be dislocated. The Commonwealth is not really worth anything anymore, and the UK is actually made up of four “countries”, two of which (Scotland and Northern Ireland) voted in favor of staying in the EU. There were already claims in these countries to leave the UK (Scotland had organized a referendum on staying in the UK in 2014, and the remaining camp had won by 55.3%, partly because the UK was still part of the EU). It does not seem so unlikely now that the UK could lose Scotland and Northern Ireland (which is already talking about reuniting with Ireland) and be left with only England and Wales. That would not be a united kingdom anymore, so there is a risk that the UK as such ceases to exist on the long-term and becomes even smaller. Leaving the EU was a really bad move in terms of British integrity preservation.

In addition, I would like to say a word to all Brits that voted for a Bremain, especially the young ones. We appreciate you wanting to stay in the EU. I think it is a shame that you will be deprived of some of your future international perspectives within the EU. Regarding the student mobility program Erasmus that has proved – and still does – very helpful to create bonds between young people(s) all over Europe and gave job opportunities to thousands and thousands of young Brits, do not worry: if our leaders are clever enough, you will still be associated to Erasmus to some extent – Great Britain will just have to pay for the scholarships because the EU won’t. Anyway, knowing that your parents and grandparents are responsible for the Brexit must be very hard. This is not like voting for a Prime Minister, knowing that its term will end in five years: leaving the EU is a permanent decision and you have been deprived of it by people who will be dead in those five years for some of them, leaving you wake up bitter in ten years still out of the EU. And for that, I can’t think of any solution. Unfortunately, this is the problem with permanent decisions: they are permanent.

Finally and most importantly maybe, the UK said no to a project that is failing, with which it does not agree. I usually defend the EU, saying that it is by nature a reflection of what the Member States are, and I stick to my opinion. The EU is not the real problem, the Member States are, and this vote will not change the fact that the UK is a part of the real problem – just like every single one of the 27 other Member States. That said, the EU, because its functionaries officially work for the EU and not for the Member States, also has its share of responsibility. The EU needs reforms and a new Treaty; it needs people who have strong opinions and a vision above all, who are committed to advancing, not bureaucrats who are merely following orders from other bureaucrats that are incompetent and sometimes corrupt. Federica Mogherini (Head of the European diplomacy) has a limited English and no experience regarding diplomacy, Jean-Claude Juncker (President of the European Commission) has been involved in the LuxLeaks corruption scandal and arrives drunk to meetings, and the Commissioners (that no one actually knows and who are suggested by the Member States themselves) are sometimes corrupt or completely out of place (for more information see article “The EU-institutions: the European Commission” from June, 14th 2016). A long due change is urgently needed, because we are heading straight to the wall.

The political and economic “elite” that gets these high-profile jobs and insane piles of cash (that we EU tax payers partly give them) think only of its own interests: they come straight from business schools, political institutes, and have absolutely no clue whatsoever about what they are doing and no vision or ideas regarding the EU. Businessmen decide our diplomacy and design our humanitarian aid programs, politicians are on top of the chain when it comes to wealth distribution and justice, etc. I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture. That just cannot be. Maybe that needs to stop, maybe we need people who are passionate about their work and have an actual field of expertise, maybe the most important EU-leaders should be directly elected by the peoples, and maybe some of the current ones should seriously consider resigning. David Cameron still had the guts to quit – and I am far from being a fan of the man. Blaming it all on Great Britain and its people without even considering for a second that the EU may also be responsible for this mess is a proof that something is wrong, and not realizing it is a proof of a worrying stupidity.

Having ideas and opinions nowadays is a bad thing. Once on Twitter, I replied to a question of an EU-institution on how to improve development cooperation, saying that we need European functionaries who can speak the language of the country they are based in when they work in EU-Delegations, especially when this country speaks a language that also exists within the EU. Well, I was told it was impossible and called an idealistic straight away (for more information, see note “Citoyens Européens, réveillez-vous” from May, 9th 2016). That example sums it up: there is a serious lack of logic, ambition and result-driving within the EU, because this was fairly realistic and straight forward. The EU belongs to the citizens: it is time to realize that. Time for a change.