Taking risks and gaining respect – European Parliament fails yet again – The Weekly 15

Márton Gyöngyösi

11/07/2020

           

The need to choose leaders to organize work activities, command armies, give guidance and help their communities to overcome difficulties is as old as the formation of the earliest human groups. Although leaders are selected in a completely different way now than they were in prehistoric times, the fundamental goals and needs have hardly changed over the millennia.

Due to their position, leaders tend to be granted certain powers and privileges but the very point of these privileges is to enable them to remove the obstacles from the way so that they could devote their full attention to the community’s welfare. 

Abusing these privileges or misusing them for the leaders’ private purposes is one of the most obvious markers of leadership incompetency. Leadership privileges certainly come with a significant amount of risk: leaders have to bear the weight of their decisions and sometimes even take personal risks in order to promote the welfare of the people. Just as ship captains are the last to jump in the lifeboat and police officers need to engage in a gunfight on occasion, politicians must be present in the public sphere and be the last to leave. Leaders who abuse or misuse their rights typically lose the people’s respect and are slowly forgotten or, in some cases, quickly ousted from their positions.

We cannot deny that European institutions, including the European Parliament, have been characterized by a certain deficit in terms of respect and the weight of their words ever since they were established. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense as the states forming the European Union never gave up their sovereignty to the EU and kept enough power for themselves to limit the roles of the common institutions. Limited roles come with limited respect.

On the other hand, although the large member states that financed and maintained the European Union “project” were not interested in allowing EU bodies to become a powerhouse in their own right, we must unfortunately state that these bodies never even attempted to become one. It would go far beyond this post to discuss how much this phenomenon was caused by the fact that key positions were filled through the nation-state elites’ back channel deals, thus creating multilateral loyalties, or by the common practice of several countries to use EU positions as a hospice for their sidelined politicians.

Either way, EU bodies have failed to fill their nominal roles with real content in less stressful periods and emergency situations alike. This failure was ever more spectacular during the coronavirus pandemic that broke out this year.

As a member of the European Parliament, I have especially been saddened by the ineffectiveness of my institution, the EP.

Perhaps I can go as far as to say that MEPs are quite privileged inhabitants of our continent. Consequently, they are rightfully expected to step up in critical situations and “stand their ground”.

However, the European Parliament was likely the first to throw in the towel on hearing the news of the pandemic. EP President David Sassoli quarantined himself on 10 March, the EP stopped its activity within the same week and it has not regained its full functionality ever since. Plenary sessions were cancelled in Strasbourg due to the infection risk while the quality of the debates held in Brussels sank lower than ever before: they were often reduced to a talk show of the few MEPs who stayed in the city at all, since most MEPs returned to their home countries and couldn’t get back to their offices. Of course, the anti-epidemic measures and the protection of the MEPs and their staff were an excellent internal PR message for the “Brussels bubble”.

What did it look like from the outside? It looked like a huge confirmation of the populist accusations against the European Union and its institutions: a bunch of privileged people enjoy their situation while they never take any risks in return and never pay anything back to the society. They offer no guidance, no leadership in a scary crisis: they do nothing other than fear for their own well-being. However, how many citizens are interested in the private well-being of EU leaders? None. Quite rightly, in fact.

 In contrast, populist politicians were busy trumpeting their own agenda.

We can debate all day how effective their pandemic denials and their utterly unscientific statements were, but they were at least engaged in the public discourse, they were seen by the people.

Putting populist mobocrats aside, there were other examples as well: national parliaments were all in session across Europe during the pandemic. Instead of standing down, politicians adapted to the Covid-19 situation and resumed their activity.

The only exception was the European Parliament with its quarantined president and its MEPs dispersed across 27 countries. Yet again, we missed the opportunity to gain some more respect.

Our institution did nothing to help MEPs do real work and did very little to serve European citizens with a normal operation, despite being the supposed symbol of the EU’s democracy.

Unfortunately, the EP abused its privileges that were given by the people, just because it was afraid to take an existential risk. As a result, the EU fell out of the public discourse while the world moved forward.

From now on, it will be very difficult to explain to European citizens why it is so essential to keep up the work that goes on in Brussels. With the EP’s money in your pocket, you can easily buy media campaigns and good slogans, but you can only gain respect through commitment and initiative. And that’s where we are lagging far behind the populists now…

 

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