“The European Parliament needs to be reformed” Interview with Derk Jan Eppink

“The European Parliament needs to be reformed” Interview with Derk Jan Eppink

Derk Jan Eppink is a Dutch journalist and was member of the European Parliament (MEP) during the previous period (2010 – 2014). He is perhaps the only “cross-border” member ever as he was elected running for a Belgian-Flemish party. In parliament he was instrumental in establishing the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) political group and became its vice president. The group is now the third biggest one in the parliament with 72 members out of a total of 751 and represents 21 political parties from 15 member states.

Derk Jan Eppink

In the past Derk had been a member of the cabinets of two Commissioners. In March 2007 he published a book called “Life of a European Mandarin” describing his experiences in the European Commission. The book became a best-seller and was translated into several languages. His latest book, “Empire of little kings – inside the European Parliament”, is even more entertaining and mixes anecdotes with serious criticism of the parliament.

During his time as MEP, Derk used to commute every two weeks between Brussels and New York, where he lives with his family. In the past he also reported from the American presidential elections. This time he intends to join the campaign team of one of the republican candidates. Obviously he doesn’t suffer from jet lags. We met him for an interview in the Brussels Press Club, where he had launched his latest book, directly after he had landed from New York.

Q: In your book you argue for a new EU policy which you call euro-realism. Is it just a buzz-word or is it a serious alternative to euro-skepticism? What does it mean concretely for the EU member states?

A: Basically it’s a response to the notion of euro-federalism, i.e. the idea that the European states should eventually form a federation, a United States of Europe. In my view it’s a goal that cannot be reached. As Europe gets bigger and more anonymous, most European citizens feel the need to strengthen their national identity. Many of the problems today can be derived from the wish to achieve this unattainable federal goal. The best example is the euro system which became a failed tool for political integration. Another issue is our foreign policy where there are problems on almost every front. We have been too naïve trying to influence other countries with our soft power. Now we are pushed around by Russia and threatened by the Islamic State.

“We all agree that Gadaffi was a murderer, but I just wonder why, over the past years, our EU leaders have been trying to charm him.”

Derk continues: “Euro-realism means a reality check. EU should focus on a limited number of tasks in the fields of the economic, monetary and political union and do them well. What doesn’t necessarily need to be done by EU should be done by national governments. With a focus on EU’s core tasks, euro-realism is also a response to euro-skepticism which wants to tear EU apart. I’m against a narrow-minded view of EU.”

“There is a role for all EU institutions but the legitimacy of the European Parliament must be repaired. Many people think that is has become a travelling circus. The parliament should legislate less. In fact it’s already doing this because of the limited legislative agenda of the new Commission.”
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“The parliament should focus on scrutiny of the work of the Commission and follow-up of the implementation of its legislation. For that we don’t need 751 MEPs. Many of them can be considered as technically unemployed because of the limited agenda. It’s a paradox that MEPs are interested in things they cannot do much about and indifferent to things that they can influence. Everyone wants to sit in the foreign policy committee and travel to other countries but almost no one is interested in the budget and control committee of which I myself was a member.”

In his book Derk is making fun of some of the MEPs he met in the Parliament. He is also critical of some known politicians. He is overall more positive to the current “triumvirate” of presidents - Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Parliament President Martin Schultz and Council President Donald Tusk – and the Commission vice-president Franz Timmermans because of the reduction of legislative proposals in the 2015 work programme.

“They have made a good start with focus on more streamlined legislation. The idea of ‘more Europe’ is at last questioned.”

“Mr Verhofstadt is actually the only liberal leader I know who is so energetically in favour of taxation. I just wonder whether he will be able to convince the general public to spend more on the EU when all European citizens are being forced to cut their own personal budgets.”

Q: The parliament wants to increase the EU budget but isn’t the problem rather the distribution of the budget? How would you like to redistribute the money?

A: We have to be realistic. Net-paying member states want to limit the budget to 1 % of EU’s GDP. The fight with the parliament is about a bit more or less. What is worrying is that for the last 20 years we haven’t managed to get a clean audit opinion on the budget by the European Court of Auditors. That’s why I think that the parliament should look more at the implementation of the budget. We should also reduce subsidies to agriculture and reallocate the budget to areas where more money is needed, such as the fight against terrorism and common energy, immigration and research policies.

Q: Can the parliament reduce its administrative costs?

A: Yes, no doubt. One example is translation. In the past, every proposal and amendment by a MEP was translated into all languages. I’m happy to say that the parliament adopted as a rule that translation to other languages should only be made on demand. Unfortunately other cost saving measures weren’t accepted. The monthly general expenditure or office allowance, ca 4 300 euro, is higher than in most national parliaments. MEPs also receive about 21 400 euro per month for accredited assistants at the parliament and local assistants in their home countries. On average they employ five assistants. That’s too much considering that the parliament has established an in-house research service to which MEPs can turn for help with analysis and research on policy issues.

Derk blames the management of the parliament for its excessive administrative spending. “The parliament wants to mirror the spending of the American congress or rather its senate. There is even a rule that there should be two officials for each assistant. All initiatives to expand the parliament in terms of buildings and administrative budget come from its top bureaucracy. MEPs come and go and don’t understand the policy. The bureaucracy stays and steers.”

He agrees that commuting every month between Brussels and Strasbourg is ineffective and wasteful but this isn’t the fault of the bureaucracy of the parliament. “It’s related to France but also other member states that prefer the status quo. So it’s not likely to be changed.”

Q: When reading your book one gets the impression that it’s common that MEPs are cheating with their allowances and lobbying for companies. Is that a wrong image or generalization?

A: Every system can be abused but the system in the European Parliament is more prone to abuse because of loopholes and grey zones. In this respect it’s not much different from the national parliaments in some of the member states. It depends on the political culture of the country. The European Parliament has been very slow in closing the loop holes and this had undermined the reputation of the parliament. MEPs are looked at as criminals. It was much worse in the past and things have improved but the damage has been done.

Derk is of the opinion that the number of MEPs should be reduced from the current 751 to 500. “Even after five years you don’t learn to know all of them. The parliament shouldn’t serve as a therapy institution for MEPs who have nothing to do and just are running around. Many don’t even show up. I’m also in favor of a ‘double mandate’ by creating links with the national parliaments. Before 1979, MEPs were also members of the national parliaments. I would propose that one third of the MEPs are also members of their national parliaments. It would strengthen the legitimacy of the European Parliament.”

Currently MEPs spend much time with their “grass roots” in their home countries. Would they really have time to be active in both their national parliaments and the European Parliament?

Derk confirms that most MEPs effectively only spend two or maximum three working days in Brussels or Strasbourg – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. There is even a proposal to increase the number of “green weeks” when the parliament is not in session. “MEPs travel a lot to their home countries to care for their re-selection in next election,” Derk says. Obviously it doesn’t help since about 50 % of the MEPs are replaced at each election to the European parliament.

Q: You were active in establishing the new political party group European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). For this you needed a minimum of 25 MEPs, with at least one MEP from at least 7 countries. Is it too easy to form a political group?

A: The political party groups play a very important role in the parliament as tools for the decision-making. In the book I wanted to show from my own experience how important they are, especially the group leaders who form the conference of the presidents and even can overrule decisions taken in the parliamentary committees. I’m referring to the group leaders as ‘little kings’. The biggest groups are dominating the parliament. But different voices should be heard. This can only be done by enabling the smaller parties to form a group. I think that the rules for forming a political group are adequate.

“There is an old adage that says: ‘if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.’ The coming decade will decide where Europe stands.”

Q: Speaking time in the plenary sessions of the parliament is limited. Time is allocated to the political groups according to their size and then distributed internally by them. Is there enough time to be heard? You would expect a parliament to be a forum for debate.

A: The speaking rules are meant to enable every MEP to have a say in the debate. Most MEPs end up with only one minute – group leaders and rapporteurs more. The problem is that MEPs try to say too much in too short a time. They read a prepared text very quickly and no-one, not even the interpreters, understand what they are saying. If we would double the time, the result would be the same. Instead they should focus on one point and deliver it well. I tried to do that.”

Q: What do you think about the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) which entered into force during your mandate period and recently was subject to a critical inquiry by the European Ombudsman?

A: If at least one million citizens from at least seven member states sign a petition they can call on the European Commission to propose new EU legislation in any of the areas of EU’s competences. Judging from my own experience it’s difficult to achieve in practice. You would need an established infrastructure of advocacy organizations and NGOs in the member states. Otherwise you need an army of volunteers which is difficult to mobilize. It’s not realistic to think that the ECP can become an alternative to referendums. The threshold is high and the Commission can easily dismiss initiatives.

“In the style of the Roman senator Cato, I say ‘Greece must leave the Eurozone’. We all know that she never can recover if she stays inside it.”

Q: How would you describe your “legacy” in the parliament? What would you have done differently if you would have been reelected?

A: I think that I boosted reform ideas and promoted a euro-realistic approach. I was also successful in contributing to a new political group in the parliament. I was critical against the euro-system and how the Commission was handling the euro-crisis. Back then it wasn’t acceptable and you were regarded as a euro-skeptic but now it is. I knew the parliament from before so I could start from the very first day. If I would stand again for election and be elected, I would focus on a few issues, such as the international trade system, the euro and immigration. My advice is not to try to do everything. Be specific and focused.

By Mose Apelblat

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