Euro-Parliament -- too democratic for its own good?
Strasbourg, France — The European Parliament has had its fair share of hard knocks and bad press. Some of the criticism has been earned. Last spring, several left-wing European members of Parliament took out full-page ads in major European newspaper pointing out that the Parliament spends $450,000 every year on cocktail parties and another $500,000 on renting cars for its members. Another America last February, the ads said.
Yet even its staunchest critics concede that the Parliament's many shortcomings, ranging from plain ineffectiveness to extravagance, can be traced to its fundamental nature as a democratic institution. That the Parliament -- like democracy itself -- works as well as it does is remarkable. Its very essence makes it an easy target.
Two years ago the Parliament held what were described as the world's first international elections. "It took the United States Senate over 100 years to get direct elections," an American senator said at the time, "but the European Parliament had theirs after only 20 years."
Today, it has eight political groups representing nearly 60 national parties -- from Italian Communists to British Conservatives. The members come from the 10 countries of the European Community (EC) and speak seven tongues. Just to unravel the linguistic mess caused by the European Parliament takes 1,200 interpreters and translators -- the largest service of its kind in the world.
Its 16 committees meet frequently in Brussels and other European cities. And it does everything else expected of parliaments in the Western world, never dictating but always expressing.
But who, in fact, listens?
The answer in the first year of the Parliament's directly elected existence, 1980, was nobody. Neither the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, nor least of all, the people who elected it.
Then, at the end of last year, the Parliament surprised everyone by vetoing the 1981 EC budget, which had been proposed by the Commission and approved by the ministers, arguing that not enough money had been earmarked for social expenditures.
Suddenly, the budgetless Community was thrown into chaos; budget in the past has been rubber-stamped. The move meant months of haggling among the Commission , ministers and Parliament to work out a compromise. In the end, the Parliament had proved its power and its point.
Still the European Parliament remains notably less effective in influencing the direction of European policy than does the US Congress or the British Parliament in guiding change in the US and Britain, respectively.
The fact that contributes "more than any other to Euro-MPs' ineffectiveness," says the influential British newspaper The Economist, "is the peripatetic life which they now have to lead."
For Euro-MPs, life is a constant six-way shuttle between their home town, their constituency, national capital, Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg (site of the Parliament's secretariat). Their collective existence has been dubbed Europe's traveling circus.
At present, the "circus" drains the Parliament of nearly $25 million a year -- 12 percent of its total budget. Rent is paid in three cities, and some 800 Eurocrats toting 60 tons of documents follow the MPs from city of city.
In July, however, the Parliament voted to eliminate Luxembourg from the merry-go-round, a move that prompted the Luxembourg government to take the Parliament to the European Court of Justice. At sake in the court's decision are several million dollars in foreign buying power -- plus $35 million Luxembourg has already invested in a new headquarters, completed last year.
Some Eurocrats argue for making Brussels the Parliament's permanent home, since the EC's two other principal institutions already have their headquarters there.
Other arguments making the rounds of MPs favoring Strasbourg as their home say that the European idea" has a better chance of reaching people if the EC's institutions are spread over several cities. "If Brussels wins," says one seasoned MP, "the citizens of Europe will be the losers. Democracy, after all, means diversity."