Piotr Kaczynski, author of about 100 publications on EU politics and former research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, is currently working as a policy adviser in the European Parliament for the Polish delegation in the European People’s Party (29 MEPs from two national parties, PO and PSL).
You can follow him on his twitter account.
“If you think about how the Union has been reformed since the crisis started, the more important actor in this process has been the Government of Berlin.”
–What’s your job in the Parliament?
I am working as a political adviser to members of the European Parliament (EP) from Poland and who are also members of the European’s People Party.
–How does the Parliament work?
First of all, I’m speaking my own capacity; I’m not speaking on behalf of the members I work with.
The European Parliament is sometimes perceived from the national perspective, as if the EP was similar to the Spanish Parliament or the German Parliament. Those are Parliaments that elect governments, those are Parliaments that adopt laws, those are Parliaments that have the power to change constitutions, etc.
European Parliament doesn’t have those powers. EP is a colegislator, so it is not a sole legislator, like the two chambers of parliament in Spain, or in Germany, or in France, or in Poland, or in other countries.
This is one of the fundamental differences: that the parliament does not make laws alone. The parliament makes laws together with the Council of Ministers; Second is exactly the same point about the Council of Ministers, because the European political system is a completely different political system than what we are accustomed to in our member states. So the political system in, let’s say, Spain (but same thing in other European countries) consists of the national parliament, the national government, there are the courts…so there is the legislative, the executive and the judiciary branch. Those are the three branches.
And then within the legislative and executive branch, you have political parties who compete for power, winning power with the public mandate through elections. But that’s the national context. In Europe it doesn’t work quite like that, it’s much more complex, much more differentiated. Therefore the proximity of names, such as the EP and, let’s say, the Parliament of the UK (House of Commons) is only superficial, the only real thing that the two have in common is that the members are elected by the people, and for the people as well.
But this is where it ends, because the roles that the parliamentarians play in the Member States are different than the roles played in the EP. A few examples:
-The EP, unlike national parliaments, does not elect the government, because there is no such thing as a government in the EU. The EP elects the President of the European Commission (EC), but the EC is not a government. Many functions of a government, which we would think of in a national context, are performed by the Council. For example, the Foreign Affairs Council.
-Another difference is between governmental majority and opposition. It exists, naturally, in all Member States, that there is a government and that there is a government support in the parliament and the parties that do not support the government are in opposition to this government. This does not exist in the EP. The majorities are framed on ad hoc basis, on issue-by-issue, and are strongly dominated by where they come from. So if the issue is of environmental importance it will be strongly influenced by the MEPS who are members of the Committee on Environmental, Public Health issues.
-Another big difference is budgetary powers. It is not the case in the EU that the Parliament adopts the budgets. The Parliament adopts the budgets together with the Council within the big framework. And the big framework, which is called Multiannual Financial Framework, lasts for 7 years. And it is politically adopted by the European Council and then legislatively translated into laws together by the EP and the Council.
–Will the next German elections be important for the future of the EU?
Yes, the next German elections are pretty crucial right now. Everybody seems to be waiting for the outcome. Why? Because Germany is the primary motor of change in the EU. If you think about how the Union has been reformed since the crisis started, the more important actor in this process has been the Government of Berlin. Therefore who rules in Berlin is a very important factor to the future of this process.
And should it be just Merkel, ruling together with her liberal partners, it’s a different story than if it’s just Merkel ruling in a grand coalition with the SPD –the social democrats- or if it is the SPD with a centre-left coalition with the Greens.
–May 2014: European elections. Will the turnout be higher or lower? What will the outcome be?
As for the turnout I’m quite optimistic. I think that the economic crisis has shown that Europe matters and it has shown this very dramatically. For many years people were cheated by their political classes of member states by saying: “oh, those are second-class elections, it doesn’t matter whom you vote. The best, of course, is voting us. But the real important elections are those elections to the national parliaments”. Because this is how we frame: national parliaments, national government and those are the people who take all the important decisions.
Well, this crisis has shown the limits to the powers of national politicians. There is as much as the government of any of the member states can do as it fits within the framework of the EU.
And nobody knows this better today than the Spaniards, where you have agreement of the government party and the largest party of the opposition, sending together letters to Brussels asking for A or B.
So, because the crisis has shown the gravity of the interdependence between European nations (I think that people are smarter than the political classes) the people will actually turn out in big numbers, or bigger numbers than four years ago.
As for the outcome, it’s difficult to predict. I think the two largest political families (EPP, centre-right; S&D, centre-left) are, so to speak, neck-and-neck, for the moment. So we don’t know which party will be the biggest in the EP after the elections. But there are also wide expectations for the moment concerning the results of the extreme parties, both on the right wing and on the left one.
–How do you think the EU is going to be in 5 years?
It’s very difficult to predict. A lot depends on how the Union and how its member states get out of this crisis, and whether the European project is able to provide solutions to the variety of local crisis so that if not all, then most of European nations and Europe as a whole gets out of the crisis and gets back on the economic growth. But this is the bottom line.
One of the factors is the situation in the UK, the potential referendum to leave the Union. Second is, for example, the economy of the strongest hit countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal or Ireland…will they start growing again? Specially creating new jobs for the unemployed, especially for the youth unemployed, or the youngest of the unemployed.
We cannot forget and we shouldn’t forget that this crisis is also a test for the unity as a whole: how much can we trust each other, how much do we want to still cooperate on many of the issues.
I give you an example. A couple of years ago there was ash cloud from Iceland that threatened the flights all around Europe and the conclusion was that we needed to reform the European air space management, so that crisis like this if they repeat themselves in the future will not be as detrimental to the European air space.
Now the European Commission has proposed a new law on this issue some weeks ago and we already have a debate on this. One sense of the debate is to defend the status quo, because very few people will remember about the ash cloud from Iceland threatening Europe and many more people will, for example, defend current jobs of their national air space controllers, etc.
Whereas overall the Commission says that European airlines are losing a great amount of money on longer routes, because the flights have to take longer in Europe than in China or the US.
So there is a room for manoeuvre, a room for growth, a room for savings in that airline industry. And there are the national interests, which are very strongly against that sort of liberalization.
This crisis is also seen in those issues, those small things, that it is not about taking the jobs from those few controllers, but it is about potentially creating many new jobs in the European airline industry in the years to come. Whether they will come to Slovakia or Spain or Greece is impossible to say but those new jobs will be created and there probably will be more of them than those that are going to be destroyed.