Deciphering EU politics: Reflections from a visit to Strasbourg

2 Mar 2014

The European Union is complex and controversial. After visiting a European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg earlier this month, this view became even more convincing when reflecting upon events first-hand. I got the impression that despite our large UK representation, with 73 MEPs in the parliament, Britain is politically and geographically isolated from other EU nations. Very few British journalists were covering European affairs at the parliamentary press conferences first-hand, which was surprising, considering the important discussions on Ukraine and air passenger rights. I considered whether Britain's supposed disaffection with Europe is resulting in less coverage of European politics. If so, it should not prevent journalists reporting on what ultimately influences our socioeconomic structure. In addition, European Elections are just around the corner and all coverage possible is needed to boost the engagement of UK citizens.

 

During my visit I saw a clear divide between the residents of Strasbourg and the so-called "travelling circus" of politicians from Brussels to the city every month. Previous attempts by a majority in the parliament to stop the Strasbourg sessions, which cost the taxpayer £150 million a year and create 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, were rejected by France and challenged in the EU's Court of Justice in 2011. The primary work done at Strasbourg's plenary sessions involves MEPs voting to adopt or reject amendments to European legislation, ranging from imports of Atlantic big-eye tuna to ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty. The voting method was not clear-cut, unlike most democratic parliaments: the chairperson asks every MEP to raise their hands, and their assistants calculate the support for the amendment, but if the vote is close, each MEP votes electronically. The first method was not always accurate during the session, with the chairperson announcing the wrong verdict occasionally, which makes me wonder why they don't use the digital voting method on a permanent basis. 

The wealth of linguistic diversity in one building was the most memorable experience in the parliament. Although the phenomenally fluent translators help make sense of discussions in the vicinity, communication between MEPs outside this formal setting must be challenging. We often assume that English is so widely spoken that we can converse in our mother tongue anywhere we go. This is not the case, as German is the most common EU language. A European Commission survey states that only 13% of EU citizens speak English as their native language, which highlights a language barrier for MEPs who do not have multi-lingual abilities when negotiating. This could be an important factor in talks between countries sharing the same language making decisions behind other nation's backs. The language differences reduce the pace and flow of discussions and votes in the parliament, which could have a knock-on effect with the time it takes to pass legislation. The tendency for translators to inaccurately convey emphasis on MEPs' important points undermines politicians' genuine passion during debate.

I watched a session where Luxembourg MEP, Georges Bach, outlined his report on air passenger rights to a group of journalists from all over Europe. The next day, the whole parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of his recommendations on improving the current law on compensation for delayed air passengers. However, it will be voted on again by the new parliament after May and put in place from November, the rapporteur convinced us. 

However bureaucratic the European Parliament continues to be, one thing is evident; turnout will remain low as eligible voters are not engaged. But, judging by what I witnessed, the institution perhaps wants to keep it that way.

By Ceirney Eddie

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