The Cable

For 2 Hours, Europe’s Parliament Was Run by the People

The event, more symbolic than substantive, marked the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.


On Tuesday, European Parliament was run by the European people. For two hours. Sort of.

From 3 to 5 pm Brussels time, 751 ordinary Europeans filled the European Parliament’s plenary chamber to debate the future of the European Union on its 60th birthday. The discussions focused on youth unemployment, globalization, the EU with 27 member states instead of 28 (after Brexit), security, and climate change.

The event could easily be understood as a symbol meant to demonstrate the European Parliament’s connectedness to its people.

After a musical performance by the Push Up Brass Band, there was a lengthy introduction by European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who apparently had the idea for the event according to Mairead McGuinness, the European Parliament’s vice president. Then the discussions kicked off.

Each topic’s discussion was introduced by a “civil society representative,” to whom two members of European Parliament then offered two minute responses. And then four questions were taken from the floor and answered. Rinse and repeat.

The event hardly had the feel of speaking truth to power — arguably the most tense moment came not from a citizen, but when a member of parliament spoke out against austerity. For example, the first question in the youth unemployment discussion came from Maura from Ireland, who wondered about the 25 year-old European program for rural development. She asked if member states would continue to allow it to be part of the bottom-up approach, with involvement of NGOs and civil society. A member of parliament responded that people throughout society should be involved in the governing process. Another regular European urged parliament to work with youth organizations and to not discriminate based on age. She was assured by an MEP that youth employment was a parliamentary priority.

McGuinness, after the youth unemployment discussion, asked how many thought Europe was doing enough to combat youth unemployment. The room remained still. How many thought Europe could and must do more? Almost all raised their placards.

And so perhaps the symbolic event was just that — a symbolic event, but one that demonstrated that Europeans, dissatisfied though they may be, are still turning to Europe to make life better for Europeans. And with Brexit officially beginning next week and France’s high stakes in the first round of elections just a month away, an event showing that the European Parliament is listening to European people 60 years after the Treaty of Rome was likely a welcome symbol.

It may also have been a sign of the times. A recent poll by CSA-La Croix shows 66 percent of French people are attached to the European Union, perhaps suggesting that, provided Europe continues to listen to its people for more than two hours, it can make it past the challenges presented to it around its 60th anniversary.

Photo credit: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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