Tuesday 1 December 2009

Now Lisbon's in force, Parliament has nowhere to hide

1st December 2009, and the Lisbon Treaty is in force (well, it has amended the two treaties that make up the constitution of the EU, anyway). It's biggest innovations were the extension of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council and the increase of Parliamentary power - the two are pretty much in step. The European Parliament wasn't powerless before, but now it is virtually an equal to the Council, except in areas of unanimity, such as foreign affairs.

So now there's nowhere for Parliament to hide - it has to prove that it's deserving of these powers; that it's willing to go further in holding the to account, in staking out it's own position more clearly from the Commission and Council, and it must go further in transparency - both from itself, and from the Council and Commission. The Commission President's Question Time needs to become more focused as well: now MEPs have more power, they should prove themselves able to get a good handle on the different issues and ask the awkward questions - this doesn't mean ranting on about political points (I'm looking at you, Martin Schulz), but digging around and making sure you put Barroso and other Commissioners on the spot to open up the Commission to real scrutiny.

The hearing of the Commissioners in the run up to the vote in January must be rigorous, revealing, and truly testing for the Commissioners-designate. In particular, Baroness Ashton's positions on Iran, Russia, the Middle East peace process, energy policy, the Eastern Partnership, etc. must be made clear. Likewise, Oettinger needs to be pushed on how he wants to see the EU's energy policy develop; it's an important portfolio, and one that the Commission has proven quick to move on in Barroso I, with important energy market reforms and the implications of climate change politics - is Oettinger up to the job? The Parliament needs to be willing to reject the Commission if it doesn't correspond to its political views; it shouldn't just rely on there being someone who can be easily recognised as objectionable even through a lazy media glance - a list of good policy reasons should be enough. There doesn't need to be a rejection of the Commission just to ritually assert the Parliament's position, but they should make sure the opportunity to shape it doesn't pass them by.

Finally, and as a greater task, all the parties in the Parliament should work to make their mark outside the Brussels Bubble in the public's minds. Better Parliamentary debates help, and will hopefully entice the media to report on them more, but the parties need to make their presence felt more in the mainstream media and at grassroots level. The Citizen's Initiative could be an excellent way of doing this if done right: a campaign for a certain policy for the media to report on, co-operation across borders with common campaigns, engaging people in European politics ("We need your support! This is what we're trying to do for you in Parliament and the EU!") and it builds up at least some recognition of the Euro-parties (or at least the position of the national parties on European issues, which will be helpful in any case come election time).

The Citizen's Initiative requires 1 million signatures across borders, and the Euro-Parties are supposed to help express cross-border political debate. The link and the logic should be obvious, and the party to latch on to it and to runs campaigns well - and follow them up in Parliament effectively - would be laying good groundwork for the 2014 elections.

Now that Lisbon's in force, we deserve a better working Parliament - more transparency, scrutiny and engagement. There are no more excuses for not trying.

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