European Elections: Parliament ready to come of age

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IT HAS been called by one wit the 'mother-in-law of all parliaments'. But, in truth, the European Parliament is still an infant and this election will be an important stage in its growing up.

The role of the parliament is threefold: a sounding board, a check on the otherwise undemocratic European political system, and a legislative body. However, none of these roles is yet fully developed.

As a check on the unelected Commission and the Council of Ministers, the parliament still lacks powers, though it gained some under the Maastricht treaty. It can block measures, which in practical terms makes it a partner in drawing up legislation; its scrutiny and amendment of legislation is sometimes of very high quality; but too often, low attendance or political confusion means opportunities to make a difference are lost.

The parliament has its fingers on the purse-strings, because of its role in jointly approving and overseeing the EU budget. It has won its spurs fighting fraud, led by John Tomlinson, the Labour MEP who has made scrutiny of expenditure start to work.

It can, and does, reflect opinion in the wider Europe, but this is stymied by the lack of real debate, and the relatively small amount of media coverage that it gets. Many MEPs are full of odd enthusiasms (one Italian champions compulsory bidets, for example) and though amusing, these weaken its credibility. And when there are serious issues on the agenda, too often the lack of discipline makes the result of uncertain value.

The limitations on parliament partly reflect practical problems. It is perpetually on the move, with documents shifting between Brussels, where many of the offices and the parliamentarians themselves are based, Luxembourg, where the secretariat is, and Strasbourg, where the monthly plenary sessions take place. Many British MEPs are campaigning for the body to be brought permanently to Brussels, but this is strongly opposed by France.

The language problem is the fundamental barrier to debates. When everything must go through simultaneous translation into nine languages, it is hard to pick a fight over the floor. Documents and meetings are also translated and the cost of the language fragmentation - about to rise with the entry of the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns - is high and rising.

Politically, the parliament is a confusing place. There is no great divide between left and right; indeed most work is done by cross-party coalitions, in particular between the Socialists and Christian Democrats, the two main political blocks. MEPs sit in a broad arc, with each of the political groups clustered together.

With 91 parties present, there is bound to be fragmentation. The British Liberal Democrats, for instance, will find their German and French colleagues well to the right of them. The British Conservatives have an uneasy marriage with the Christian Democrats. Labour, since its conversion to Europe in the 1980s, is relatively at home among the Socialists.

The dynamic driving parliament is the contest with the Commission and the Council for power. That overrides most partisan sympathies and parliament is capable of pulling together - sometimes - to show that it can act responsibly and that it is ready to fight for power. In other countries there are strong links with national parliaments; this has yet to evolve in Britain, where the European Parliament is often regarded as a competitor to Westminister.

This election will bring in a legislature that will use for the first time the powers won at Maastricht (approval of the appointment of the new Brussels Commission next year, for instance). So the election will help to determine whether the European Union really has an effective democratic body or one that remains uncertain of itself.

But the date that the most ardent advocates of parliament's role are watching is still two years away. In 1996, the European Union is due to rewrite its rules in a Maastricht-style inter-governmental conference, and MEPs want a role in setting that up.

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