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The Globe and Mail

EU quietly seeks sweeping new legal powers

Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session at the in Strasbourg, France, on Oct. 25, 2011.


Constantin Gurdgiev is head of research with St. Columbanus IA and lecturer in finance at Trinity College, Dublin

Missed amidst the endless news flow on the euro crisis, the European parliament has been quietly working toward obtaining a ground-breaking set of new powers. If adopted, these would give the body unprecedented authority, which could lead to witch-hunt type trials of EU critics and those who challenge the status quo.

The proposed change, approved by the EU parliament's constitutional affairs committee, would oblige member states "to punish, in accordance with their national rules, those who refuse without justification to provide documents or to testify, and likewise those who give false testimony or bribe witnesses."

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While no one can object to powers being extended to cover violations of the law, the new legislation would give the parliament adjoining powers to allow its committees of inquiry "to conduct on-the-spot investigations and get help when needed from national authorities," with "the right to ask any person to provide relevant documents, in full compliance with national rules on seizure of objects."

Further, any EU citizen could be summoned to testify at the committee's behest. Witnesses could be asked to speak under oath, but would retain the right to refuse, as well as other safeguards afforded by national laws in similar cases.

If passed, the new set of powers could improve the effectiveness of parliamentary inquiries. However, the very same powers could also be used to deliver character assassinations of critics of the EU or its policies. And in cases of national referendums, they could enable EU politicians to strong-arm those leading or backing opposition platforms. Nothing in the past performance of EU officials or politicians suggests that the parliament will refrain from using new powers to interfere in the democratic processes of member states.

For example, during the Lisbon 1 and 2 referendums in Ireland and during the French and Dutch votes in 2005, both the parliament and the EU Commission directly interfered in the national referendum processes in a biased and acrimonious manner. This interference included numerous efforts to discredit the leadership of the opposing campaigns. In the more recent past, EU officials and politicians have actively interfered in the sovereign decisions taken by member states during the current economic crisis. Such interference can only be strengthened by the new powers.

It is erroneous to compare the proposed powers to those of the U.S. Congress for one simple reason: The EU institutions have neither the democratic credentials nor functioning checks and balances to ensure that the new powers are not being abused.

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