Europeans Losing Faith in Their Parliament
When cracks recently appeared in beams of the European Parliament's main chamber, forcing its closing, one member, Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party, proclaimed that he would "work for the day that the whole democratic facade of the European Parliament is shut as well."
Mr. Farage is an avowed anti-European known for extreme views. But even for Europeans who do not actively resent the Parliament, it has become a powerful symbol of how institutions designed to build a united Europe have faltered as the project faces the most serious crisis of its 60-year history.
A poll conducted last November found "a sharp decline" in the European Parliament's image compared with a similar poll in 2008, when Europe's economic crisis bloomed. The Eurobarometer, conducted by TNS, found that 26 percent of the 26,594 people sampled from across Europe had a "negative" view of the Parliament, an increase of 9 percentage points.
The Parliament's "diminishing legitimacy and authority," said Fredrik Erixon of the European Center for International Political Economy, a research group in Brussels, was "really very worrying at a time when people have been protesting in the streets against diktats from Europe to fix their economies."
Indeed, in a push for "more Europe" as the solution to the euro crisis, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and others have sketched elaborate visions of an elected European president and executive overseen by a strengthened parliament. But the current state of the Parliament — including corruption scandals and the appearance of excessive lobbying — has added to doubts about the likelihood of that prospect.
The Parliament, with 754 members, is the only directly elected part of the apparatus that runs the European Union. But the percentage of eligible voters who have cast ballots every five years has declined to just over 40 percent from more than 60 percent in less than a quarter of a century.
In the meantime, Mr. Erixon said, "lobbyists have stepped into the vacuum left by the weakening link between citizens and parliamentarians," who are popularly resented for their web of generous allowances and the influence they wield over regulations.
On many days parts of the parliament building have the feel of a glitzy trade show. Business lobbies organize conferences in meeting rooms and host meals in the dining rooms at the invitation of friendly members. They also mount exhibitions — some in seeming violation of the Parliament's own guidelines.
The Parliament is not alone in breeding disenchantment with Brussels. Last month, John Dalli, the European Union's commissioner for health and consumer protection, resigned after investigators concluded that he had probably known about an attempt by a lobbyist to solicit money for a multimillion-dollar payoff aimed at easing a ban on chewing tobacco. Mr. Dalli denies any wrongdoing.
The episode arrived after a string of similar controversies in the Parliament this summer when the authorities in Austria, Romania and Slovenia accused representatives from their nations of abusing their positions.
Those accusations followed a scandal that began last year when the members were caught on camera apparently prepared to propose amendments in return for cash in a sting operation conducted by The Sunday Times of London.
Ernst Strasser, a former Austrian interior minister who resigned after the revelations, had demanded an annual advisory fee of €100,000, or $128,000, for influencing legislation and could face a 10-year prison term if found guilty, the Vienna prosecutor has said. Thomas Kralik, a lawyer for Mr. Strasser, did not return calls seeking comment.
Zoran Thaler, a former foreign minister of Slovenia, also resigned after the revelations. The Slovenian authorities filed a case in May concerning bribes in the Parliament but declined to name the person involved, citing the country's privacy rules. Mr. Thaler said by telephone that he was confident the Slovenian authorities would find no wrongdoing.
In July, the Romanian authorities expanded an investigation into Adrian Severin, a representative and former foreign minister, accusing him of helping Romanian companies sell "fictive services" that robbed the Parliament's budget of €436,663. Mr. Severin said by telephone that he was innocent of trading influence, calling the charges "a fairy tale" and politically motivated. He has refused to step down and can still enter the Parliament, sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee and cast votes.
The scandal led to the creation of the first ethics committee and, remarkably, for the first time an explicit ban on members taking money in exchange for amending legislation. But despite the recent overhauls, representatives are allowed to hold second jobs with no limits on salaries and accept flights and accommodations without declaring all of them. By comparison, such practices are explicitly forbidden to members of the U.S. Congress.
The rules prevent members who join or establish lobbying firms from using their lifetime access to Parliament once they leave office. But as of September, the parliament had not asked any former deputy to hand in a badge. More than 2,900 badges are held by registered lobbyists, according to officials in The Parliament's press service.
A further 12,000 lobbyists can enter the parliament at almost any time at the invitation of a member, according to the Corporate Europe Observatory, a nonprofit group advocating reform. "Citizens simply don't know how many lobbyists are active at the Parliament, who they are, who they represent and how much money they are spending," said Erik Wesselius of the Observatory.
Lobbyists also have direct access to lawmakers through extra-parliamentary organizations like the Kangaroo Group, which promotes free trade. Its members include more than 50 representatives from industry groups and major companies like Philip Morris, Pfizer and Goldman Sachs — and about 20 lawmakers. The group used an office rent-free in a building maintained by the Parliament until renovation forced it to move last year.
Some guidelines already on the books are routinely ignored. The "rules governing the use of parliament's premises by outside bodies" state that exhibitions should "under no circumstances have a commercial purpose" or "serve to advertise and promote individual companies or for-profit organizations."
Nonprofit groups that are advocates for issues like the environment hold exhibitions, and every few weeks, a different industry plies its influence.
In April, for example, seven trade associations representing 130 companies with major interests in natural gas, including Total of France and E.ON Ruhrgas of Germany, sponsored an exhibition with 3-D video displays and projectors that bathed the parliament building with messages promoting natural gas.
Vladko Todorov Panayotov, a member from Bulgaria who was a co-host of the exhibition, told a large crowd that it should become "traditional event, maybe one time a year, maybe two."
In May, the cosmetics industry followed. Lawmakers browsed stands with sunscreen made by L'Oréal and electric toothbrushes from Oral-B while their assistants jostled for goodie bags, some containing free bottles of Acqua di Giò Essenza, a fragrance by Giorgio Armani that retails for about €70.
The cosmetics exhibition was the second this term hosted by Françoise Grossetête, a French member. Her first exhibition involved support from Sanofi-Aventis, a major pharmaceutical company with operations in her constituency in southeastern France.
Deputies are limited to hosting one regional or informational exhibition and one artistic showing per five-year term. But Ms. Grossetête said it was "frequent and customary" for members to be granted more than one exhibition a term when space was available.