European Parliament: What does it actually do? One clue lies in your phone bill

European Parliament: What does it actually do? One clue lies in your phone bill

European Parliament: What does it actually do? One clue lies in your phone bill

No sooner had tans from skiing in France or beaching in Spain faded than Europeans were hit with eye-watering roaming charges for every call, text and Google search.

Then suddenly the roaming charges vanished, almost as if by magic. Europeans could skip across borders with the same mobile phone allowances and fees they enjoyed at home.

Behind the scrapping of roaming charges in June 2017 lay a tortuous, decade-long struggle by the European Parliament.

As the European Parliament elections near — between May 23 and May 26 — one of the biggest challenges facing MEPs is communicating to voters what they actually do.

Even experts who have spent their entire careers studying the European Parliament admit it’s a complex institution for voters to get to grips with.

From rules on how many hours employees work, to the quality of the air they breathe and even data privacy, the European Parliament passes hundreds of laws each year affecting 500 million people. Not to mention approving EU budgets and appointing the President of the European Commission.

Euroskeptics meanwhile, argue the Parliament doesn’t really exert that much power, instead tinkering on the edges of legislation that must first be proposed by the European Commission anyway.

If you want a better idea of how the European Parliament shapes laws, phone roaming charges are a pretty good place to start.

All for one

The Parliament is one of three institutions that must come together in agreement to pass a law — the others being the European Commission and Council of the European Union.

The Parliament — made up of 751 MEPs elected by citizens — is seen as the body representing the voice of the people. It has the power to amend, reject and approve legislation, alongside the Council, but not the power to propose a law in the first place — only the Commission can do that.

“The Commission is the most important institution in this area,” said Auke Willems, a fellow of EU law at the London School of Economics. “It ultimately operates as an agent hanging over the two institutions, making a compromise.”

But that doesn’t mean the Parliament isn’t a crucial part of the lawmaking process. Where it “really gains power,” said Willems, is by “proposing amendments that go to the Council.”

That’s where the bargaining with the Council — which is made up of government ministers from the 28 member states — comes in, ultimately leading to a compromise. Once there’s agreement, all three bodies sign it off.

How long all this takes depends on the gravity of the law. The majority of laws get passed in what is called the “first reading,” which is roughly within a year, according to Willems.

In the case of “roam like at home,” the Commission first made the proposal in 2006 and it was rejected and amended and gradually implemented over a decade. In 2007 charges were reduced by 60% and by 2017 they were scrapped entirely.

This is the formal process for passing laws. But there’s also an informal law-making process called “trilogues” — essentially a tri-party meeting between the Commission, Council and Parliament — that pass an estimated 80% of laws, according to Willems.

Trilogues are efficient — the vast majority of legislation gets passed in the first reading, said Willems. But he added that they are also “shrouded in secrecy” as the institutions don’t publish details of what takes place.

Whether it be a formal setting or trilogues, it’s still up to the Commission to propose laws in the first place. According to Gawain Towler, spokesman for the Brexit Party and former UKIP aide who worked in the European Parliament for a decade, this means the Parliament “doesn’t actually have much power.”

He called it a “vaguely democratic fig leaf on a regulatory machine, tinkering at the edges of legislation.”

‘I couldn’t have done it without MEPs’

Meanwhile the former European Commissioner who proposed the “roam like at home” laws, Viviane Reding, said that “without the European Parliament I could never have done it.”

She says the idea first came about in 2004, after an increasing number of MEPs said their citizens were complaining of enormous phone bills whenever they went abroad.

The Parliament, which is pro-consumer rights, backed Reding’s proposal. The Council, which represents the member states, fought against it.

“Because some telecommunication companies belong to the state, their revenue went into the state budget,” explained Reding. “So they were all terribly opposed to having roaming charges eliminated.”

“I needed the Parliament not only to vote, but to go vocal,” said Reding, adding that MEPs went back to their constituencies to push the issue to media and ministers.

“They really put the pressure on.”

Towler is more skeptical, acknowledging that the Parliament was involved and signed it off, but ultimately the law “was a Commission thing.”

He said that for MEPs who travel to different countries almost weekly, phone roaming was first and foremost “in their own interests,” rather than in the interests of citizens who might be able to afford a “two-week holiday” each year.

Apathetic about elections? You’re not alone

Do citizens realize the role MEPs played in scrapping phone roaming charges? Reding believes those in some European countries, such as her native Luxembourg, are more aware of European lawmaking than in others such as Brexit-voting Britain.

“There is an enormous disconnect between what the European Union does and the Brits,” she said, adding that the reason could lie with the UK media “not explaining enough who makes the decisions.”

Willems sees it as a broader PR problem with the EU, saying “it doesn’t really sell what it does well, and gets criticized for what it doesn’t do well.”

One thing is certain: since the first European parliamentary elections in 1979, voter turnout has been steadily dropping. The last election, held in 2014, had a turnout of just 42% — ranging from 89% in Belgium (the home of the EU headquarters), to just 13% in Slovakia. To put that in perspective, voter turnout in the 2016 US election was 61%.

Part of the disconnect between voters and MEPs can be put down to geography, said Willems, adding that the headquarters in Brussels is removed from most other European capitals.

The way the European Parliament works is also “quite obscure” to voters, he said. Unlike national parliaments, the European Parliament isn’t organized by political parties, but political “groupings.”

This means a citizen might vote for a national party, only to see them taking a seat in a grouping that includes parties from other countries whose policies they are not in agreement with. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union is in a grouping with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rightwing Fidesz — parties with vastly different stances on immigration, but still nonetheless part of the European People’s Party (EPP) group in European Parliament.

Fidesz joined the EPP in 1996, but in recent years, the parliamentary group has become increasingly concerned about Fidesz’ hardline policies under Orban. In March, the EPP suspended Fidesz, though it stopped short of full expulsion.

The parliamentary groupings setup “creates a distance between voters and ultimate outcomes” in the legislative procedure, said Willems.

The distance might be great, but with just days until the European elections, decision time for voters is inching ever closer.

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European Union tries to protect election from fake news

European Union tries to protect election from fake news

European Union tries to protect election from fake news

The European Parliament election campaign has begun. But this time, it’s not just political candidates who are facing scrutiny. Social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google are also under intense pressure to do everything they can to prevent their platforms being misused and manipulated, and to stop the spread of fake news.

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European Elections: Everything you need to know

European Elections: Everything you need to know

European Elections: Everything you need to know

Between May 23 and May 26, citizens from 28 member countries will have the opportunity to vote for who will represent them in European Parliament over the next five years.

The biggest challenge for these elections, however, is communicating to voters what the parliament and its members actually do, according to Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the research initiative, UK in a Changing Europe.

“A difficulty for the European Parliament is that it does have a lot of power, but its fame is fairly limited,” Usherwood said. “I think a lot of people don’t really know about it, they don’t understand what the parliament does and doesn’t do.”

Who can take part?

At the European Parliament, 512 million people from 28 member states are represented by 751 members. All EU citizens and qualifying Commonwealth citizens have the right to vote, as long as they have registered.

Voting will begin in the Netherlands and the UK on May 23. However most of EU countries will vote on May 26, with results expected later that evening or early on Monday morning.

Recently, the turnout to vote in these elections has been steadily dropping. In the last election, in 2014, there was a turnout of just 43% — ranging from 90% in Belgium, where voting is compulsory, to just 13% in Slovakia.

How can someone become a Member of European Parliament?

Anyone can stand to become a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in each country as long as they’re a citizen of the European Union, and they can run as a representative of a political party or as an individual. It’s also not a requirement for them to have any previous experience as a politician in their home country.

“It’s like a national election but the difference is that EU citizens who live in other countries — other member states — are allowed to vote and stand as candidates in that country,” Usherwood explained.

“The idea is to give all EU citizens to have someone represent them, wherever it is they live in the European Union.”

The European Parliament's Hemicycle in Strasbourg.
Each country is allocated a certain amount of seats in parliament, depending on its population. Malta for instance — which is the EU’s smallest nation — receives six seats, while Germany — the largest — has 96.

“Roughly speaking, the larger you are as a member state, the more seats you get but because we have quite a lot of smaller member states they are generally over represented,” Usherwood explained.

“That’s really to make sure that even in the smallest member state there are enough MEPs to represent the different political voices and strands that exist in every country and make sure it’s not simply a case of the large member states determining all the decisions by themselves.”

How are MEPs organized?

The European Parliament isn’t organized by political parties, but by political affiliations — otherwise known as groupings.

Currently there are eight political groupings in the European Parliament.

“This is one of the things that is quite unusual about the European Parliament,” Usherwood said.

“Any MEPs will stand as members of national political parties but once they get to European Parliament they are encouraged by the rules to get together in cross-national groupings based on ideology.”

The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are the two largest groups.

“The larger your group the more influence you have in parliament,” Usherwood explained. “Speaking time is allocated by the size of your group (and) the number of chairs and committees you get is also determined by the same formula.”

“Being part of a large group can give you real clout,’ he added. “It means you get to encounter people from other countries, share ideas, share policies.”

As well as the EPP and the S&D, there’s also groups for euroskeptics, liberals, greens, as well as left and right-wing MEPs.

In order to establish a group, there needs to be at least 25 MEPs who represent at least 25% of EU Member States. If a MEP doesn’t belong to any political grouping they’re known as “Non-Attached Members.”

What powers do MEPs and the EU Parliament have?

The European Parliament makes up one of three institutions that are responsible for legislating across the EU.

The Parliament is made up of directly elected MEPs who represent EU citizens. Then there’s the Council of the European Union, which is made up of representatives of individual member countries, and the European Commission, which is a politically independent executive arm, responsible for proposing legislation and implementing the decisions of the EU Parliament and Council of the EU.

In order for any legislation to be implemented, both the Council and Parliament have to agree.

“The easiest way to think about it is that … you have 28 member states and they’re trying to work together to do useful things for their citizens, so to do that they’ve created a commission which is kind of a European civil service but also a place where you have some political direction,” Usherwood explained.

MEPs pass laws on behalf of EU citizens which are then applied all over the bloc — from abolishing telephone roaming fees to adopting measures to limit the effects of global warming.

They also elect the President of the European Commission (who is currently Jean-Claude Juncker) and holds him or her to account.

What does the European Parliament actually do? One clue lies in your phone bill

“It’s quite a significant power that the European Parliament has,” Usherwood said. “That’s ranging from environmental legislation to questions about regional development. So it does make a real impact on people’s lives and shapes the continent as a whole.”

However, Usherwood said it’s important to note that the European Parliament isn’t like a national parliament.

“It’s not able to start its own legislation — that power belongs to the European Commission. And there’s still some things that the European Parliament can’t decide on — that’s still with member states.”

Auke Willems, a fellow of EU law at the London School of Economics, told CNN that the Commission is “the most important institution.”

“It ultimately operates as an agent hanging over the two institutions, making a compromise,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the Parliament isn’t a crucial part of the lawmaking process. Where it “really gains power,” said Willems, is by “proposing amendments that go to the Council.”

The European Council is made up of the leaders of the 28 member states. It’s not part of the EU’s legislating institutions, but it does define the overall political direction and priorities of the bloc.

Wait, I thought the UK was leaving the EU?

England was already divided. Brexit is only making it worse

Originally, the intention was that by the time these elections came around, the UK would no longer be a member state — the first planned date for the country to leave the EU was March 29. As such, it would not have needed to hold the elections.

However, as a result of Prime Minister Theresa May being unable to receive approval for her deal from UK Parliament, she sought a Brexit extension.

EU leaders stipulated that it would allow an extension only if the UK continued operating as a member state in the meantime, which included taking part in the upcoming elections.

What will happen after Brexit?

The UK currently has 73 MEPs but if and when Brexit does happen, 46 of its seats will be abolished while the remaining 27 will be redistributed to other countries.

Usherwood said the removal and redistribution of those seats could influence current political groupings, such as where some may no longer be large enough to qualify for funding. It could also affect the amount of speaking time that each group receives.

Ahead of the European Parliamentary electins, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage launched the Brexit Party.

If the UK can agree a deal before European Parliament returns on July 2, he said, the UK MEPs who were elected during these elections will not have to take up their seats, but adds that it’s unlikely.

“I think you’re likely to see … that the 73 British MEPs will take their seats in Parliament and they’re going to have a real influence on a number of decisions, not least determining who gets what job within the new parliament,” Usherwood said.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arriving ahead of a European Council meeting on Brexit at The European Parliament in Brussels.

However, policy analyst Dominic Walsh, from the think tank Open Europe, noted that when the UK does exit the EU, it “won’t necessarily make much difference” in Parliament.

“Historically, voting in the European Parliament is not usually very close, so UK MEPs won’t necessarily have a decisive influence on the outcomes,” he explains. “If they did, however, this would be hugely controversial.”

Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe's fake stories

But Usherwood argued regardless of whether or not the UK sits in the next EU Parliament, its presence, or lack there of, will be felt.

“In or out it changes the balance of votes on particular bits of legislation,” he said.

“There’s always important legislation going through the European Parliament and British MEPs have typically been more towards the more liberal side of trade policy, they were more interested in deregulation, liberalization and without them you may find the European Parliament is a bit more willing to impose limits on what markets can do than what’s previously been the case.”

What could happen once the UK leaves, Walsh believed, is that the so-called “grand coalition” of the center-right and center-left may gain a “slightly larger majority.”

What themes and groups are expected to dominate this year?

Usherwood said this European election is all about populism and the role the EU plays not only internationally but also internally.

“One of the things that’s going to become more of an issue is what role do populists play within the campaigns in different countries,” he said.

“We’ve seen the rise of many parties in many countries that talk about populism, that talk about kind of reasserting the national over the European — so (the question is) how well are they going to do? And how much do other parties try and copy their behavior to limit their progress?”

Europe's populist nightmare won't end with Brexit

Trends in the domestic politics of countries like Germany, Italy and Spain now look likely to be “elevated to the European level,” Walsh said.

“The 2014 elections took place in the wake of the Eurozone crisis — which meant issues such as youth unemployment and austerity were very important to voters,” Walsh explained.

“This time, it comes after the EU has experienced two different crises — Brexit and the Mediterranean migration crisis. Immigration and security will be important issues in many countries — as will climate change.”

While Usherwood said Europe’s relationships with the US, Russia and China have become more uncertain than five years ago, which will “raise questions about where the EU sits in the world.”

Usherwood added that the EU still has many internal challenges. “The eurozone doesn’t look very healthy economically, there’s still a problem with unemployment and low growth.”

The problem with European elections, he said, is that voters are usually “more concerned with their national situation than they are with the Europe-wide situation.”

“Here in the UK people are voting in many ways to express their views about Brexit — which the European Parliament doesn’t really play a role in, just as in other countries they’ll be voting on that country’s politics and politicians,” Usherwood said.

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