This article originally appeared on my blog kosmopolito.org on Apr 12, 2014.
First things first: The European Parliament elections are not — and I repeat — NOT like national elections. So what does that mean for journalists? Well, first of all familiarise yourself with the EU decision making process — no, really I mean it, just click here for the infographic! Too superficial? This report abut the European Parliament’s procedures may also be helpful.
In a nutshell: The EP is not like a national parliament, it is not about clear majorities and there will be no new government. The EP always works with the aim of finding a cross party consensus — so the most interesting work is done in committees. Yes, there are a couple of “Spitzenkandidaten” who hope to become EC President later this year. The problem is that we don’t yet know how this will play out. It is pretty much an experiment. But you should use this process as a journalistic opportunity — these candidates are supposed to present ideas for the next Commission and it would not be a surprise if some of them were to end up in one of the top jobs after the election. As a journalist you can use this process to find out what will be on the agenda in the coming years. You see, the role of journalists is to dig deeper. Don’t just criticise the (admittedly flawed) selection process — also give them a hard time defending their policy ideas (if they have any!)
Anyway, here are a few tips how to report issues in the run-up to the European Parliament elections 2014 (this could also be useful for local/regional journalists):
- A new kind of “policy journalism”. Ask EC candidates (“Spitzenkandidaten”) for concrete policy ideas, then check with parties and (prospective) MEPs what they think about it. This would actually reflect the EU policy making process. (I am sure your readers will appreciate this new format as it shows that your outlet knows what you are talking about!)
- Impact? The question about “impact on country X” should be treated carefully. It is not a national election (I might have mentioned it before…) so we actually talk about impact across Europe. But again, it is all about individual policies — so if you really need to write a piece about “your country” think about a concrete directive or EU policy — and do some proper policy journalism. Please note that neither the Parliament or the Commission can change the treaties — focus on concrete ideas and check whether the EU has the competence to actually do something about your issue.
- Change of existing EU law? Look for controversial directives and ask whether EC candidates or prospective MEPs would like to change them in the next term. [yes it is possible for the EP to propose things along those lines: 2010 framework agreement & a Commission that is open to the idea]
- Read the party manifestos. Yes, good old party manifestos or campaign posters/leaflets/slogans are a great source of stories. Especially the question whether policy proposals are a matter for the European Parliament. Sometimes manifestos don’t seem to be fact-checked by a lawyer and contain ideas that can only be implemented with a new EU treaty. Another easy mistake are proposals that can only be implemented on the national level — without any EU involvement.
- What to ask prospective MEPs. Ask them which committee they want to sit in, whether they see themselves as a rapporteur for certain issues etc. Try and find out what they want to achieve in the European Parliament. It is about issues: environment, digital rights, transport, agriculture, fisheries — you might want to read about the role of the EU in those policy fields. Another idea: check their personal links to companies and how they dealt with lobbyists (industry and NGOs) in previous jobs. Ask them what sort of directives they would welcome and what issues they want to see on the agenda.
- The most important question. Does this issue fall under EU competence? What would be the role of the European Parliament in the process?
- No EU jargon. Don’t be satisfied with phrases such as ‘completing the single market’, ‘a more competitive Europe’, ‘jobs are important’, ‘a stable Euro’ or ‘completing the digital single market’, ask what it means in concrete policy terms. Does the EU really have instruments to address unemployment (or is it a national competence?) What sort of directives would boost competitiveness? Name one concrete regulation that is considered “red tape”. What is the role of the EP in the governance of the euro (or is this a matter for other institutions)?
- How the European Parliament really works. The EP is different from national parliaments. There are usually big majorities at the end but the process is the interesting bit. So as a journalist you should familiarise yourself with the nature of political groups in the Parliament and how a committee works. This will help you to understand how the job of an MEP looks like — and what questions you should ask them in the run-up to the election.
- Scrutinizing MEPs Votewatch is one of those great resources every journalist should worship. Here you can find amazing data about the voting behaviour of certain MEPs. So before you arrange an interview with an MEP have a look at the individual voting records.
- Lobbyists. The European Parliament is the target of quite a few lobbyists. Dig a bit deeper and you will find great stories about the influence of big business or NGOs. Also keep an eye on the “revolving door” and what sort of part-time jobs MEPs pursue!
- What to ask the Eurosceptics. Try and find out what they want to achieve — focus on the policy level and avoid cliches about ‘red tape’ and the Brussels ‘superstate” Another question could be: why do you want to be an MEP? Since you want to leave the EU wouldn’t it make more sense to run for your national parliament? Confront them with their manifesto and ask whether they can really achieve it by being in the EP. Are they interested in policy work — or in youtube hits or TV appearances?
- Issues. Issues. Issues. Talk about issues — really this is what EU politics is all about. The European Parliament could kill TTIP — did you know this? In fact it can kill any trade agreement if there is political will. (Remember ACTA?) Or think of REACH or the service directive? In both cases the EP hugely changed the original proposal.
- Agenda Setting. Since the adoption of the 2010 inter institutional framework agreement the EP can submit legislative proposals to the Commission — if the Commission does not want to take it up it needs to explain in great length the reasons for its decision. Did you know this? Why have I never read anything in the press about the success rate or the problems connected to it?
- Questions for all Spitzenkandidaten. Tell me three concrete legislative proposals your Commission would propose in the next term? (don’t be satisfied with speech bubbles such as ‘competitiveness’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘stable euro’) Why do we talk about the future of the EU in such vague terms anyway? Voters have a right to know what exactly is in the pipeline…