How we can make Europe matter to people

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis is likely to be one of the 736 Ministers of European Parliament (MEPs) that will be preparing today to take their place in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Although his surname may suggest he will be one of the 22 Greek politicians headed for the French city, Chatzimarkakis is, in fact, representing the liberal Free Democratic Party in Germany and is set to be one of the country’s 99 MEPs – by far the biggest block in the European Parliament (EP). If elected, the 43-year-old will begin his second term as an MEP and is already in a position to comment on what Europe is doing correctly and where it is going wrong. His father’s Cretan roots also mean that he has an interest in Greece’s position in the European Union. What have people been voting for in these elections? A look at the history of the European Parliament reveals the significant development of this institution over the last 57 years. The parliament has been gaining more powers from successive treaties, namely through the extension of the co-decision procedure. While the EP co-decides 80 percent of all EU-decisions, it is estimated that after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, it will be co-deciding up to 95 percent. This means that the voice of European citizens is gaining more weight and that European democracy is entering a higher level. The European elections of June 2009 are therefore of major importance. Considering the major social challenges, such as the financial crisis, climate change, the energy problem and the pending improvement to quality of life and health, the members of the new European Parliament are called upon to respond to these crucial issues. In order to indicate the political direction of the next five years, European citizens must elect their representatives. In my opinion, people are also voting for something else: In recent decades, the EU has evolved from an economic zone to a community of values: freedom, equality, democracy, social market economy, ecology. This formation is unique in the world. Each vote is a contribution to preserving those values through a strong EU. Nobody can deny that European integration has changed our lives in a positive way. All these considerations imply that a close relationship with the people is needed in order to reach a broad social legitimacy. In Greece, and no doubt in many other countries, domestic rather than European issues have dominated the buildup to the vote. Is this a failure of the European Parliament? It is true that the European elections are a secondary matter in the minds of many European citizens. This does not apply only to European elections, but in general, to all activities and decisions made at European level. For some reason, most people do not realize that the EU is not just an integral part of our political life, e.g. the Schengen area, euro currency, educational programs etc, but moreover the part that guides our social environment. In the last few years, a lot of money has been invested by the EU in building up a knowledge platform aiming to provide people with information about the EU. It is noteworthy that the largest website in the world, which is also available in every European language, is the EU website. People have access to plenty of documents and, thus, they can easily follow up on the decision-making process. Concerning the EP, all debates are broadcast live and all the decisions made are immediately published. The EU also utilizes numerous Internet channels, such as YouTube or Facebook, to reach the public. What I am stressing is that information is available and everybody has access to it; this is an essential part of the European Transparency Initiative. This leads me to the conclusion that the general public’s lack of interest in European issues is not necessarily the EU’s failure. In my opinion, the national state is responsible for this deficiency. Having national political issues dominating national media coverage, I suggest that this issue is closely linked with the fact that national politicians insist on playing the star role back at home. Metaphorically speaking, when the sun shines, it is always thanks to the national government and when it rains, it is always thanks to Brussels. What do you think MEPs should be doing to convince Europeans that what goes on in Strasbourg actually makes an impact on their daily lives? Being an MEP means having a great responsibility toward the people of Europe. Our job does not only consist of speaking for the Europeans at the plenary. Moreover, it is our duty to inform the citizens about ongoing issues, to report on our activities, our achievements and failures and to sensitize people to participate in the European decision-making process. In order to achieve these aims, I believe that seeking a dialogue with constituents is the best way. Face-to-face discussions allow for an exchange of views and provide an opportunity to address the issues directly as well as to raise awareness. Besides, I believe that physical proximity makes the EU more comprehensible to the people. I tried to do so in the last five years, not only in my German constituency, which is made up of 16 million inhabitants, but also in Greece, especially in Crete. Has the European Union lost its identity and, if so, can it find a new one? I would rather say that at the moment the EU is lacking more of a clear vision for the people than an identity. Besides, what is European identity? This is a complex issue that sociologists and political scientists have debated for years. Still, there is no official definition of it. Nevertheless, there is a common understanding that equates European identity with sociopolitical diversity, cultural pluralism and multilingualism based on common values. These values refer to democratic principles, mutual respect and tolerance. As a liberal, I would say that welcoming Turkey into the European family would reaffirm the fact that the European house is build on these values. Conversely, it would only find its right place in the European family if the Turkish state and society adopts the values which mark European identity. As someone who follows Greek affairs from a distance, what is your view of the political scene here? Concerning the economic crisis, I would like to point out that the German newspapers widely debated whether the unity of the euro is in danger, mainly because of Greece. The Germans are particularly concerned about whether to strengthen the weak countries of the eurozone or not. This is a serious issue. Greece must focus on solving its financial and economical problems instead of producing scandals. Furthermore, it is estimated that, this time around, people would rather not go to the elections or will vote for smaller parties in order to punish their leaders. Participation in European elections is usually high in Greece but the everlasting instability of Greek governments and, in general, of the political system leads rightly to great disappointment among citizens. Greece is pressured not only from abroad by the European partners, but obviously also from within. Consequently, it is high time for an overall change of the political and economic system. Although one would expect the economic crisis to hand an opportunity to parties of the left or center-left, they do not seem to have benefited so far. Where do you believe the political future of Europe lies? I think if the EU had a clear vision, it would have already given precise answers to the different problems we are facing at the moment. This and all other European problems have a common root: Europe lacks orientation, a final profile and a distinct purpose. The EU needs a real vision and not just another package of ideologies. Europe needs a pragmatic and functioning approach and I believe that it would provide such a clear vision if it made, for example, the field of healthcare and quality of life its top priority. Regarding our economic paradigm, these key elements of European policy would play an important part in turning Europe to the healthiest society in the world and thus, in contributing to significant change. People need tangible change. This crisis is an ideal opportunity to head in that direction. In comparison to leftist party programs, liberal parties are currently gaining more popularity because their positions are passing the reality check test.