If the European Parliament had the same powers as the European Commission, what would it do?
MEPs have longed for the ability to propose legislation since, well, since there’s been a Parliament. They can request the Commission to put something on the agenda, but their so-called initiative reports are non-binding and, more often than not, go unanswered.
“Where is this black hole where the Commission buries our initiative reports?” asked Yana Toom, a long-time MEP from Estonia who belongs to the liberal Renew Europe group.
Addressing the Strasbourg plenary in July, the Commission’s incoming president promised to change that. “I support a right of initiative for the European Parliament,” Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs. The Commission, she said, will respond to parliamentary proposals with a “legislative act in full respect of the proportionality, subsidiarity, and better law-making principles.”
POLITICO asked MEPs — old hands and newcomers, from Eastern and Western Europe, and from across the political spectrum — what they would do if they could legislate tomorrow.
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The Council of the European Union should be made more transparent, said Klára Dobrev, a newly elected Hungarian MEP from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats group.
Unlike Parliament plenary sessions and committee meetings, which are webstreamed so that “everyone knows our arguments and how the debate is going,” when national leaders, ministers and experts gather in Brussels, they often meet behind closed doors. “The most powerful legislative body lacks transparency — we don’t know who said what and why,” she said.
Dobrev isn’t the first to wonder about Council transparency standards. After an inquiry last year, the European Ombudsman’s office found that “the Council’s current practices constitute maladministration.”
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French MEP Manon Aubry, who is co-president of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, wants to pass a directive to establish an independent authority to investigate potential conflicts of interest for incoming commissioners.
“We need to learn from the [Sylvie] Goulard case,” she said, referring to France’s first commissioner-designate, who was rejected by the Parliament in part because of ethical concerns raised by a lucrative side job at U.S. think tank Berggruen when she was an MEP.
According to Aubry, the current procedure — in which a Parliament committee reviews conflicts of interest for all commissioner-designates — is too rushed and lacks the right tools to verify information provided by the nominees. It is also in itself a conflict of interest, she added, given that parliamentarians have to make decisions on candidates from their own political groups.
Any changes to the procedure should also apply to the vetting of MEPs, said Aubry, who supports a proposal from the Greens group to limit additional sources of income for MEPs while they are in office.
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There’s plenty of unfinished business when it comes to the single market, according to Róża Thun, a Polish MEP from the European People’s Party who’s entering her third term in the European Parliament. It’s time to break down barriers when it comes to cross-border access to music, e-books, games and software, she said. Variations in food quality between Eastern and Western Europe is also a problem, as is the high price of cross-border parcel delivery.
The EU should also focus on reducing waste, plastics and packaging, she added, “to give an answer to all the young people taking to the street” to protest governments’ inaction on climate change. “There is a lot we can achieve [on environmental issues] via the single market,” she added.
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If the Parliament had the ability to legislate, Toom, the Estonian Renew Europe MEP, would want to ensure every EU country has a fair minimum wage. Some 22 EU countries currently have minimum wages, but the amount varies greatly from one to the next. “We have to keep an eye on our internal market, it has to be fair and more or less balanced,” said Toom.
In an October initiative report approved by MEPs, Toom called on the Commission to “put forward a legal instrument that would ensure every worker in the EU has a fair minimum wage.” She wants a hard law. “We can’t have a recommendation that no one implements,” she said, referring to guidelines released in 2012 by the José Manuel Barroso Commission that did little to move things forward.
It’s an issue where even the Commission’s powers are limited, Toom admitted. National governments hold most of the power on social issues and “without opening the treaties, we can’t do anything,” she said. “We have big ambitions but our hands are tied.”
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The EU should be at the forefront of the effort to regulate endocrine-disrupting chemicals, said Petra De Sutter, a former Belgian senator who is now an MEP with the Greens group. These chemicals — found in plastics, food packaging, and everyday items including water bottles — can interfere with hormone production, damage the brain and kidneys and cause infertility, according to new research. But scientists and government regulators disagree on how best to evaluate their safety, largely because their effects on our bodies are long-term and hard to detect.
“We should use the precautionary principle” when it comes to health issues, said De Sutter. “That is what differentiates us from the United States.”
In April, MEPs voted to adopt a resolution to create a Europe-wide framework for regulating the chemicals and limiting exposure to them. The fact the resolution drew widespread support from across various parties means there’s appetite for new legislation, according to De Sutter.
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The Parliament should push to set up a refugee status for people displaced by climate change, “instead of waiting for a Commission proposal that is not coming,” according to Sylvie Guillaume, a French MEP from the Socialists & Democrats group, who has been in the Parliament for more than 10 years.
According to United Nations data, 17.2 million people had to leave their homes as a result of natural disasters in 2018. The Geneva Convention on refugees doesn’t include people displaced by climate emergencies, meaning they are not eligible to apply for asylum. And yet the number of people affected is expected to increase dramatically in the years ahead.
Aside from a few “stubborn climate skeptics,” most people will find it hard to block legislation to protect climate refugees, Guillaume predicted. “There has been a turning point in the public opinion about climate change.”