A STRASBOURG vignette: Terry Wynn, the Labour MEP who heads the budgetary committee and is regarded as the most powerful person in the European Parliament, is chuckling. He is exhibiting unabashed glee as he recounts a call from European Commissioner Flynn, whose office had summoned him for an urgent chat about funding. Too bad, said Terry, not coming, too busy. 'And Padraig Flynn had to come running down here and make his representations.'
That might seem a petty tale, but in turf-wars small things matter. That it was Flynn to Wynn, not Wynn to Flynn, illustrates a wider truth. Europe's traditional power relationship, which has given the Commissioners demigod-like authority as custodians of European union, is shifting, not only to national governments but in favour of the young European Parliament.
It isn't happening by accident. Real parliaments are not granted powers; they have to fight for them. Though some national governments, notably the German one, are in favour of a stronger Strasbourg, the MEPs are surrounded by jealous institutional enemies. A not-so- genteel struggle is starting which will probably intensify after the new parliament is elected in June.
The Parliament already oversees pounds 56bn of taxpayers' money, and will be responsible for some pounds 70bn a year by 1999. It has real power over how the money is spent - the Parliament, for instance, was influential in getting the proportion of the European budget spent on agricultural subsidies down from 75 per cent in 1984 to just under 50 per cent now, and switching the money to social and regional spending. At a smaller level it recently put 50 new anti-fraud jobs into the European bureaucracy and pushed large sums to help fund the election process in South Africa. A page-worth of examples could follow.
Experienced MEPs stress that the new power is partly the result of the Parliament slowly learning how to exploit the budgetary powers it already has. But there are new powers too. David Martin, a Scottish Labour MEP, and vice-president of the Parliament, believes the post- June Parliament should ruthlessly exploit its new authority to ratify the incoming European Commission. So, if the Euro-elections show a tilt to the left across the Union, Mr Martin argues, the new Commission must reflect that. It should also be obliged to come up with a 'Queen's speech' explaining what its priorities are and what it intends to do with its new mandate. If it fails, the Parliament should block all the appointments.
This is strong stuff, and one can hear similarly aggressive pro-Parliament rhetoric from MEPs of a wide range of nationalities and parties, from right as well as left. When the next round of constitution-building comes in 1996, the Parliament will be fighting hard for further extensions to its authority. There is, in short, a fighting chance that the Strasbourg Parliament will end up acknowledged by all, happily or not, as a Real Parliament.
How will that be affected by the results of the June election? The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that they are hard to predict, particularly after the revolution in Italian party politics. There is an assumption that the mainstream right will do well in France and Spain, and that smaller anti-European parties will be more strongly represented; but that in general, the socialists may end up as the largest group. The performance of the British Tories is widely considered to be critical to the eventual political balance, and hence the stance that the Parliament takes on the key bread-and-butter issues of jobs, law and order and immigration over the next five years.
So these are elections of some intrinsic importance: they will determine the politics of a young Parliament - only 15 years old as an elected institution - at a time when it is reaching for serious power. A dazingly complicated result, with large numbers of MEPs outside the main groupings, could mean that it fumbled its chance. But a clear result, whether of left or right, is likely to produce a federal Parliament we will start to notice.
Or not. For something has been missing. Strasbourg may have the money, the people and the power, but it has so far been the 'hidden Parliament', lacking all but the most cursory and spasmodic media coverage. Billions are spent, scandals erupt - most recently, over the building of a new parliamentary chamber - and the folks back home barely notice. One British MEP was scornful of the good publicity he could get back home by sending his own press releases to free newspapers in his region. There was no serious media scrutiny of what he got up to, he half- ruefully pointed out.
This is not a trivial point. You cannot have a democratic assembly that is accountable to voters unless it is widely and well reported in the mass media. The European Parliament just isn't: to arrive in Strasbourg as a journalist from London is to feel as welcome and conspicuous as a rare bird alighting in a field of twitchers.
This is perhaps because, up to now, many MEPs have felt it was in their interest, as they argued for a bigger role, to emphasise how little power they had. That is changing as they now find it convenient to emphasise how powerful they are becoming. As that process continues, anti-federalists will have to update their rhetoric. They are going to have to deal with a nascent democratic body at the heart of Europe, rather than the easy, old target of 'unelected Brussels bureaucrats'. None of which makes life any easier for Tory nationalists or, indeed, John . . . Oh, but sorry, I promised.Reuse content