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Ten ways for the EU to regain the voters' trust

The Local · 2 Jun 2015, 08:00

Published: 02 Jun 2015 08:00 GMT+02:00

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A year ago hundreds of millions of Europeans voted to elect their representatives to the world's second-largest democratic parliament. That we in Europe have chosen to cooperate on our common future challenges is a strength and a necessity for continued peace and welfare.

The Centre Party had its best EU election in 19 years and I was given the voters' trust to defend green and liberal values in the European parliament. The first year has clearly shown that those who say that an individual parliamentarian cannot make an impact are wrong. The opportunities to influence, even if you represent a small EU country, are great.

Many of the issues we push are improving, such as reducing emission quotas to make it more expensive to destroy the environment, reducing the overuse of antibiotics in Europe, fighting to make more countries take their responsibilities in terms of welcoming refugees, and working to make it easier for small business owners.

However, while there has been rapid improvement in these areas, the road to openness and transparency in the EU is longer. Despite decent efforts by the European Ombudsman and organizations such as Transparency International, secrecy and closed doors remain the norm in Brussels. This risks fuelling the EU distrust spreading all over Europe.

This EU scepticism reaches its peak with the upcoming referendum in the United Kingdom on a possible EU exit. The criticism directed at the EU about the lack of openness and democratic deficit needs to be taken seriously. The Centre Party is part of the responsible parties in Europe that do not hold back EU cooperation, but want to develop it in a more open and democratic direction.

In order for this to happen a clear reform agenda is required. I here present 10 suggestions for how we can create a more open and transparent EU.

1. Make the Swedish EU affairs committee more transparent

Today the majority of meetings by the Swedish parliament's EU affairs committee take place without any access granted to either journalists or citizens. Nor do MEPs have access to the meetings, which is the case in for example Lithuania. This should be changed. When heads of member states negotiate within the Council of Ministers, the government has its position approved by parliament's EU affairs committee beforehand. The fact that we cannot follow and review the discussions about how Sweden should act on future legislation creates a feeling that decisions are made above the citizens' heads.

2. Publish the Council of Ministers' documents

Documents and protocols from the Council's meetings are often classified. And when they are published, they are often censored, which means member states' positions cannot be controlled afterwards. EU ministers must be accountable for their compromises or statements. They do not represent their own beliefs, they represent their citizens.

3. Let EU parliamentarians debate in the Swedish parliament

Swedish MEPs rarely face each other in debates on home turf. This creates a feeling of indifference and gives the impression that there is a lack of political alternatives in the EU sphere. Therefore, the Swedish parliament should give MEPs a chance to participate in domestic debates annually. This would literally bring the EU closer to Sweden.

4. Change the law for increased participation at local level

The EU has a major impact on local authority operations. Today, municipalities, county councils and regions mainly have an implementary role when it comes to decisions made at EU level. This is not enough. The ability to efficiently implement these decisions requires proactive work and dedication. Sweden's local government act should therefore be changed so that it becomes mandatory for local authorities to pay attention to the work of the EU Commission.

5. Make government disclosure mandatory

Today, the government is not obliged to keep local authorities informed about the ongoing work in the EU. If municipalities are to be made to keep their ear to the ground in Brussels, the government should also have a responsibility to support and facilitate their work on EU issues. This mandatory disclosure should be written into the constitution.

6. Legislate access to public records in the EU

This freedom of information principle has served Sweden well. The opportunity for journalists, non-governmental organizations and individual citizens to request and view public documents is a cornerstone of our democracy. A similar principle should be introduced at EU level. There have been suggestions to create administrative legislation for all EU institutions and agencies – a principle of access to public records should be included herein.

7. Introduce a time limit for appealing classified material

Today, the process of appealing a decision to classify EU material is lengthy and complicated, which makes it difficult to review the Union's work. This process must be made clearer and a time limit for how long the process is allowed to take should be introduced.

8. Register MEPs' votes

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Voters must be able to see that we handle their trust in the right way. Today, votes in parliamentary committees are not registered electronically. And too few votes in the chamber are registered, only around 30 percent, despite the fact that all votes affect the EU's citizens. To ensure it is always possible to review parliamentarians mandatory registration of votes needs to be introduced.

9. Open the doors to the secret legislation rooms 

Parliament, the Council and the Commission negotiate crucial legislation in informal 'trilogue meetings', which citizens are left out of. Documents, agendas and protocols from these informal meetings must be published and made readily available.

10. Strengthen the EU's lobby register

Voters should be able to feel confident that I do not work for anything other than their interests. That is why there should be a lobby register of those who want to influence us in power in Brussels. To have access to the Commission and Parliament, lobbyists are required to register and openly show who they work for. However, this does not apply to the Council of Ministers, because too many of the member states oppose it. The Swedish government should dare to stand up against its European colleagues, so that this part of the EU machinery also requires lobbyists to register.

Europe faces challenges ranging from high unemployment to climate change. To meet these, political forces with clear leadership and a willingness to change things are needed. But to ensure that those changes win the trust of citizens, a Union founded on democracy and openness is required.

Fredrick Federley is a Member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Centre Party. This is a translated version of a debate article that originally appeared in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

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