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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 18:45 GMT 19:45 UK
Europe's Cinderella or Ugly Sister?

By Paul Reynolds
News Online world affairs correspondent

The European Parliament (EP) is perhaps the most misunderstood and, mainly in Britain, probably most reviled institution in the European Union.

It seems to be in the news solely when there are expense scandals or when someone takes a shot at it for being an expensive and pretentious talking shop.

When I joined the parliament's staff in 1979, it was basically a talking shop but it has gathered power and pace fast
Dermot Scott, European parliament UK office
In fact, it has acquired a significant amount of power over the last 20 or so years so that it now stands as a co-equal to the Council of Ministers, that is the member states, in making decisions about many European laws.

This power of "co-decision", as it is called in eurospeak, means that, largely unnoticed by most of the populations which vote in its members, it can make or break many pieces of legislation which affect the ordinary lives of European citizens.

It stands to gain even more powers from the new European constitution as co-decision is spread to more policy areas.

Dermot Scott, the head of the parliament's UK office in London, said: "When I joined the parliament's staff in 1979, it was basically a talking shop. But it has gathered power and pace fast. The problem is that public perception of it has not changed."

(c) IOM 1990 - MIT0002 Soviet Pentecostalists
The EP wants to play a bigger role in asylum and immigration policy
The agreement of the parliament has to be sought for those issues which are subject to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers.

There is a procedure, complicated but not impossibly so, under which the parliament puts forward amendments and its position and that of the Council of Ministers (who have to resolve their own differences) are reconciled.

If there is no agreement, then there is a "conciliation" process not unlike the one between the two Houses of Congress in the United States and if this fails, then so does the legislation. Usually however, there is a compromise.


The issues subject to co-decision mainly involve nitty-gritty subjects and the most important are the environment (40% to 50%), issues affecting the working of the internal market, health and safety at work and consumer protection.

Some examples illustrate how and why the parliament now counts.

  • Testing of animals for cosmetics: The European Commission (which is the EU's civil service and which has the sole right to introduce legislation, though members of the Parliament can propose amendments) proposed a long list of exemptions and long periods of transition. The EP insisted on fewer exemptions and quicker implementation, despite vigorous opposition from the French government, which wants to protect its cosmetic industry.

  • Air passenger compensation: Soon airline passengers subject to delays or cancelled flights will be able to claim much greater compensation. The EP, concerned that low-cost airlines might go out of business if compensation was too high, toned down the original Commission proposals. This went to conciliation and was finally agreed last October. An exemption was allowed for the Scilly Isles which is served only by helicopters.

  • Water Treatment: This was an initiative by the EP which resulted in a directive enforcing higher water standards. Scotch whisky producers got an exemption for the springs whose water, they argued they had paid for in perpetuity and which was not wasted.

  • Lead free petrol, now commonplace, was once championed by the Parliament.

  • Financial Services regulation: This directive is an example of how the British government, often regarded as hostile to European measures, appealed for help from the EP. The draft directive was held to be too tough for the City of London and the Parliament accepted some of these arguments. The result is a measure not as bad as Britain had originally feared.

    Bid for more powers

    It can be seen from these examples where the influence and power of the Parliament lies. The laws are sometimes derided as "widget directives" but they have to be made by someone and one of those "someones" is the EP.

    "Our major job is the domestic agenda not global issues," says Dermot Scott.

    "It affects the food you eat, the air you breathe, your workplace, your health and safety and your environment. These issues are decided jointly by your government and others and by your MEPs."

    THE EU BUDGET 2004
    How the EU spends its money

    In the draft constitution, the Parliament stands to gain because of the larger number of policy areas in which it will have the right to co-decision.

    The most contentious is probably asylum and immigration.

    But there are other powers it wants, notably power to regulate spending on the Common Agricultural Policy which still takes up nearly 50% of the EU budget. France opposes handing powers over this to the EP and wants to retain its veto.

    "The Parliament basically has everything it wants in terms of powers," says Dermot Scott, "and now it wants those powers to be generalised. That means extending them right across the field of legislation."

    The struggle for recognition by the European Parliament has been a long one. It is not over yet. Somehow it has not overcome its poor image to be accepted for what it wants to be - a democratic workhorse at the heart of the European Union.


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