MEP: European Parliament needs to be hub for national MPs

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Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which grants national parliaments a bigger role in EU policymaking, MEPs are set to strengthen the cooperation between national and European members of Parliament by intensifying work among policy committees, said European Parliament vice-president Silvana Koch-Mehrin in an interview with EurActiv.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin is a German liberal MEP and one of 14 vice-presidents of the European Parliament.

She was speaking to EurActiv Managing Editor, Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

The Lisbon Treaty has given a greater role to national parliaments, but more as a watchdog on subsidiarity than in really assuming a pro-active role on legislation. Do you agree? Or do you think the institutional changes will trigger a different role for national MPs?

I think that there is a lot of room for defining the role of national parliaments. The Lisbon Treaty gives certain specific provisions. In a first phase, it is true, they have that role under the subsidiarity check and the orange card procedure, for example.

But I also see two additional phases - the second phase, the legislation procedure here in the institutions, where I see national parliaments able to play a much more active role than ever before. They first need to become aware of that, and I think that a certain challenge still exists here, as many are unaware of their new powers.

The third phase is about implementing the legislation, where I think national parliaments could liaise closer to the European level, maybe to 'smoothen' the delaying procedures in some countries, like Germany with its federal system.

The big challenge is now to get the European and national parliaments together to find that spirit of cooperation and realise that it's about the cooperation of democratically-elected members of parliament and not at all about the EU gaining more power and excluding national parliaments, rather the other way around.

Let's talk a bit more about these different roles. So far, interparliamentary cooperation has been based on COSAC [Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union], national parliaments' EU committees, MPs and MEPs, and the EU parliaments' conference of speakers. But COSAC, which meets twice a year, is not fit for the new interparliamentary cooperation foreseen by the Lisbon Treaty. Is that correct? What stage are you at in reviewing the format of that cooperation?

We have set up a steering group in the European Parliament with a representative from each political group and we worked on certain recommendations, which now have to be discussed in the bureau: I hope in September before the second plenary session.

The recommendations we developed are going far beyond COSAC, which as we see it has changed roles. It used to be useful for subsidiarity checks, but this is no longer valid as we have a different procedure for this clearly defined in the Lisbon Treaty.

COSAC today is more like a forum, useful to discuss certain specific topics which have a broader scope, such as the annual legislative work programme.

But we think closer committee cooperation is really important, as this is where we do legislative work. It is not enough for national European affairs committees to be aware of what's happening as industry committees, for example: the national and European parliaments need to be cooperating for a better exchange.

We see different levels of cooperation and use new technologies. We don't want to increase travel or the number of meetings. Like video conferences are used in the private sector, I think this is also feasible for us. This is something we are strongly recommending.

You are proposing more specialised committee meetings via video conferencing. What other types of cooperation are envisaged?

We will continue holding joint parliamentary meetings. The last one was on energy issues. This cooperation will also be supported by stronger cooperation between political groups in national and European parliaments, not only on technical matters but also on political issues.

We also see the parliament speakers' conference as becoming more important. We don't want to steer the whole process but, given the nature of the European Parliament, it could act as a hub for these activities.

In the paper produced by the steering committee we also give recommendations on how many meetings and how much extra travelling should be allowed to avoid a travel inflation and get everyone tired of travelling, which goes against what we want to achieve.

Have you checked whether national parliaments would be willing to hold video conferences at committee level? There are many MPs who don't speak a second language, especially in southern countries. Would this risk marginalising certain MPs or would it be done in 23 languages?

I think it would have to be done in all EU working languages. This is a technical issue and I am always very optimistic when it comes to these types of problem.

There was a test run with the French Assemblée Nationale and the IMCO committee [committee on the internal market and consumer protection] here totally done through video conference and it worked fine. There were some minor technical problems with interpretation, such as when French went through Hungarian to Slovakian, but this was only a technical delay.

French MEP Alain Lamassoure proposed having more regular interparliamentary meetings in ad hoc working groups, rather than committees, like for example in the framework of the budget review. Is this idea progressing?

I don't think that there is a contradiction. The cooperation at committee level just means that we want to move on from the European and AFCO [Committee on Constitutional affairs] committees.

If we really want to get the Lisbon Treaty working, then we need to go to other political areas, either the joint committees in full size or just the rapporteurs. What's important is that a structure for this is in place. People are very enthusiastic about the possibilities of Lisbon Treaty, but all kinds of things happen without a very structured process and this does not lead to the best possible results.

All we want is to structure the cooperation and working groups bringing together rapporteurs is absolutely part of that restructuring.

One other question regarding processes: there are currently three vice-presidents in charge of national parliaments. Isn't this overkill, and is this going to change?

This was the decision of the president. He assigned his vice-presidents with the jobs which they do in replacing him.

What we foresee for the next COSAC is for one of them and the chair of the AFCO committee to be sent by the bureau as the official representatives of the European Parliament, with the political groups sending their representatives.

For many years it was perceived that MPs and MEPs were sort of rivals. Do you think that this new context will make them work more like partners or what would this require?

I think that it is absolutely necessary to come to a mutual understanding that if we want the EU to be successful as a democracy, then this has to come through the cooperation of the representatives of the people.

It is not enough that this is through governments, as they are always a closed shop and have so many less democratic procedures than in the European Parliament. I think that the spirit reflected through the Lisbon Treaty is that only through parliamentarians will the EU become more democratic.

We are currently seeing national parliaments being overwhelmed with the number of documents sent to them, almost drowning in information, and they cannot immediately differentiate between what is most important and what is merely good to know.

They are in the same situation as we are here in the European Parliament. In order to build a spirit of mutual cooperation, MEPs should be proactive in developing personal relationships with MPs and reduce the occasional doubts or question that MPs have towards the European Parliament. It is crucial to involve all MPs, not only those that are directly concerned by European affairs.

The latest Eurobarometer shows that more and more citizens are falling out of trust of the EU. Do you think that this new cooperation between MPs and MEPs will, by the next elections, pave the way towards greater ownership of the European project and allow for a real EU debate to take place?

I certainly hope that would be the case. But the EU can only offer, to a certain extent, help or activities that will change this situation. However, I think it's important that for citizens, what they perceive as national and domestic questions are in fact European issues.

It's a duty for MPs, but even more so representatives of national government - who come to Brussels every month and know the European added value of their work - that they communicate it adequately in their home countries, as they are the ones who are seen in the media.

MEPs and commissioners cannot reach out to as many people as national MPs do, as they are often not as well known in their home countries.

Last year, it was quite fortunate that in Germany, for example, we had European elections shortly before national ones, because we saw them as a test for the national poll.

Perhaps this is something to be taken into account and national calendars can be changed so that European elections become a more important political date than they are in some countries.

Do you think the European Parliament could influence EU governments through national parliaments with this renewed partnership? It currently appears to be the other way around. With a stronger role for the European Parliament, this partnership could focus on specific issues and ensure its strength through national assemblies. Would that need a process?

I don't think you can set up a formal process for that. But if you have closer cooperation on a lot of issue-based questions then I think it can become clear that parliaments are there to control the government and that the European and national parliaments are not there to control each other but that we jointly control the governments, and the European Parliament is also there to control the Commission.

That's why I find the Barroso initiative very smart, proposing for the Commission to cooperate with national parliaments, but not exactly in our interest as the Parliament. We are the legislators, however, and not the Commission, and it is on this perception shift that we must work upon over the next few years.

The Commission is planning a 'Communications revolution' and is seeking more of a government-like role than ever before, based on the personalisation of Mr. Barroso. Do you think personalisation can galvanise the interests of EU citizens? Which person should that be? If we focus on Barroso, then what happens to the Council and Parliament presidents?

I like that the Commission is trying something very ambitious and different in order to close the 'communications gap'. A lot has been tried out in the past few years and it is usually true that you can communicate political information via persons and not just via a subject.

I, however, have a problem with the fact that citizens cannot choose who that face should be in becoming the face of Europe. If citizens can directly elect the president of Europe - whether it's of the Commission, Parliament or Council, then it's a fantastic approach as this person is then 'our' president', the face of Europe in the world. Right now, we try to do one thing without having done the other beforehand.

For example, [Commissioner] Oettinger is a very well-known politician in Germany, everybody has followed the story of his life in tabloid magazines and it's a tough job for Mr Barroso to become more well-known than him.

I would suppose it is the same for Commissioner Siim Kallas, who used to be prime minister and thus is well known to the citizens of his home country. To focus on one person is good but at the same time we must establish the procedures for having a democratically-elected president of the EU rather than one that is appointed.

The Parliament just adopted a report on communication and the media, underlining the role of social media. As one of the MEPs in the communication policy committee, do you think social media can help reopen the Pandora's Box of institutional reform, precisely in respect of a campaign to elect a president of Europe?

I think social media has a role if those who are participating as actors in these social networks feel they have a role to play and are not just there to make a comment.

The Obama campaign worked because social activists had the feeling that they actually had an impact and that their views were taken into account in shaping his manifesto. If it is just about gaining a lot of participants, then it won't work. That is not the spirit of social media.

The same is true for the European Citizens' Initiative. If this can gain a certain momentum, then I can see social media playing a role in raising awareness for certain initiatives and maybe in this way a campaign could be started to get a directly-elected president of the EU.

You spoke of video conferencing. Do you think online fora could be a useful way to make people engage with one another?

I absolutely think so. We are trying this out on Facebook, for example, between the floor leaders of the Liberals and what we see is a generational gap.

Some MEPs have their assistants printing out contributions as they are not used to working with blogs and online chats. I think this is definitely a method for the future. However, as it is fast and it easily identifies the amount of participants, I think it is a very intelligent way of cooperating and will become more and more important, not only in political campaigning but in our day-to-day work.

The Parliament is planning a Second Life-like site. Do you think it could make people more interested in the EU, or is it just a fad?

Let me take an example. What really worked very well in Germany was when some ministries offered explanations for what they were doing for children online, on their official websites.

It turned out that most of the users were not children, but adults. That was quite successful.

We also have a public TV series where politics is explained to children and the moderator is quite a popular young man who explains what a trade union does, the Parliament and so on.

Trade unions then asked for hundreds of thousands of copies of that video to distribute to union members so that they could allegedly show it to their kids.

That shows that very often we communicate in a too intellectual and complicated way. I feel it's not really important to impress people. When I think of my grandmother, who only had a basic education and worked as a shopkeeper, she wants to understand what's happening here.

Easier ways of communicating are the way forward. Second Life is more of a gadget for me.

Are you suggesting it would be better to have a European Union for dummies …

In a way…we don't need to prove to anybody that we are able to do intellectually-challenging work here. We are here to solve people's problems. 

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