Sunday, 23 February 2014

A day at the European Parliament

I got a chance to participate in a committee meeting of the European parliament.

Official languages

I arrived early, too early. The meeting room was empty. Committee of the foreign affairs meets ere.
Clean seats
Few minutes before the scheduled start, the presidency and few members show up. I learned that the meetings start typically 15 minutes after the scheduled time, and when the chairman finally tell the participants to sit down and be quiet.

Meeting follows an agenda, but this time there were two urgent issues that were discussed before the items on the printed agenda. They were recent referendum of Switzerland limiting the immigration from the EU and demonstrations in Bosnia. Both issues deserved 20 minutes of lively debate.

Most, if not all members regretted the result of the referendum and everybody agreed that the EU should do something, but what? Proposals were at least these: let’s wait what the Swiss government does, let’s wait for 3 years and then we will see, let’s put sanctions in place against Switzerland, let’s study this first and then we will know if we need to react and how. The conclusion was that committee must get more information before it can decide what to do.

Up and down all day long
One member stated that after all, Switzerland is not member of the EU and they have made their decision according to their own democratic processes. We should not hastily impose sanctions on them, because it would give the EU critics valuable tools for their election campaign. Similar argument was repeated at another occasion the following day. I learned that the EU critics have an important role to play in the European parliament. The majority is carefully considering if the critics can use their decisions for unintended purposes. In the worst case the parliament will be ridiculed publicly. This is how democratic process works.

Watch out!
The other urgent issue was the recent demonstrations in Bosnia. One of the members had just come back from Bosnia and was shocked by the popular unrest, and admitted that we don’t really know what is going on and who the demonstrators are. Apparently it was started by students, but taken over by radical elements. Another member speculated that it is not about people unhappy because of unemployment, but somebody has a political agenda that we don’t know yet.

Grande Place monday evening
One member spoke about the European External Action Service discharge 2012. She stated that the parliament does not get enough information on where the money really goes. She said that the EEAS has too many high officials, more than any other service in the EU. Also the gender balance and geographical balance of the officials is far from acceptable.

Small and smaller light
One of the main items on the agenda was the recommendation of the EP on the EU strategy towards Iran. There are new opportunities in the relations with Iran, due to the internal changes. On the other hand human rights situation is still very bad, with huge number of people executed, even children, and persecution of minorities, especially religious ones.

In this connection I learned that many of the members are already busy with electoral champagne, since they sent messages through those who were present. In general, members are present at the committee meeting only during the matter that interests them, and during the voting.

Golden age
Besides the members, there are many other people in the meeting. Many agencies and services send their people to follow the discussion; there are also visitors from outside of the EU institutions, including foreign embassies that want to know what EP is talking about their country. This is a clear sign, that for example human rights discussion in the committee has importance, and that the message is conveyed to the country concerned.

Wide place
One of the main issues in this meeting was the report on EU foreign policy in a world of cultural and religious differences. I was expecting that this report will raise some controversy, and I was not wrong. Later on, in the voting, the report was rejected. This was very frustrating for the rapporteur, since she thought that all groups were behind her report. It remain unclear to me what happens to the report, will she have to start from the beginning or will the subject be abandoned for good? It was one of those reports that the parliamentary committees write upon their own initiative. They are usually more or less irrelevant or empty in content, regardless of their high flying eloquence.

Cathedral Grand Place
Voting on Tuesday morning was the high point of the meeting, since lots of members turn up. Some of the items, like discharge, were voted without discussion. To my surprise, the most interesting discussion was on the use of broadcasting media as a tool of EU diplomacy. Some members wanted to change the name of the report, since the name indicates that broadcasting media, like Euronews, should not be presented as EU propaganda tool for ideological purposes. Some members insist that the broadcasting activity of the EU must be objective, but the chairman took more pragmatic position and stated, that neutrality should not be obligatory, because one of the main purposes of media is to present OPINIONS.

Hitting the wall
Once more the issue of EU critics was raised. The parliament must be very careful in what it says, especially taking account the looming elections. Will the opposition use this report as weapon? One of the members put it like this: “Sometimes we are scared to say even things that we firmly believe, when we are afraid of what M. Farage will say about it”. The end result was that there was no vote on the issue. No vote, no report, no critique.

Luxembourg station
The interesting thing in the voting was that very often the votes were divided in 22 for and 23 against, or something in those lines. The chairman, who often made people laugh with his jokes, stated that “you see, the member that forgot his voting card practically decide the results of each vote!”

High level expert
It was somewhat tragic to see the frustration of the rapporteur when her report was not adopted. She was asking, how did we come here, everybody was so supportive during the preparatory talks, but now they reject the report. The chairman tried to console stating that “Maybe the shadow rapporteurs didn’t get their opinion heard”.

Take me to your leader
On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see content rapporteur after his/her report was adopted. Report adopted seems to give great satisfaction for an MEP.

This fellow is apparently Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. He decorates Restaurant Raphael, good beef with reasonable price.
Ignatius Loyola

Parque cinquantenaire.
Year of the horse
In conclusion, I am impressed by the effective and fast paced work of the committee, I enjoyed the bubbling idealism, I was touched by frustrations and overjoyed by the sense of humor of the chairman. I am in awe when I think that they manage to agree and adopt reports even on highly controversial issues.

When the voting was over, half of the members went to perform other duties and the atmosphere changed from electric back to normal. The progress report of Turkey didn’t seem to be of interest for many. In fact, the discussion on this topic was one of the most interesting during the two day meeting.


Go and visit the European parliament!


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