Writing off written declarations

Thanks to the European Parliament, March 24 is a date celebrated by Europeans with as much veneration and delight as July 14, November 9 or December 25. For March 24 is, of course, the European Day of Artisanal Gelato.

Or perhaps not. Maybe this is the first you have heard about this momentous date. Maybe you are unaware that artisanal gelato is even a thing, and distinct from mere ice cream. If this is all news to you, then you are among the many who failed to notice in 2012 when MEPs issued a written declaration naming March 24 the European Day of Artisanal Gelato.

Like other written declarations the gelato day may have promised more than it delivered. For all the bold language MEPs use, the effects of these statements have been limited, to say the least. Other recent declarations have concerned issues like dog population management, a ‘Chess in School’ programme, and a proclamation of the European Day of Mayors.

That’s before mentioning proposals that could not muster the votes to even become declarations, like one on Cydalima perspectalis, also known as the box tree moth, one making the EU a dolphinarium-free zone, and one seeking a European Cravat Day.

Now, however, the written declaration is no more. MEPs voted on December 13 to remove them from their Rules of Procedure, along with other changes like tightening access to certain documents, more transparency around interactions with lobbyists, and stiffer penalties for MEPs who use defamatory, racist or xenophobic language.

And so, the Parliament draws a veil over the device created in 1983 to raise issues that would otherwise not gain enough attention. Written declarations were used to launch campaigns: they let small groups of MEPs publish a short text of up to 200 words which others could sign within a three-month window. If half of them signed, it would show the Parliament’s commitment to a certain issue. They did not, however, bind Parliament: declarations were not considered as an act representing Parliament’s position, but only those of its authors and signatories.

They were very popular among external stakeholders and individual or non-attached MEPs, who used them in the hope of kicking off a debate amongst the EU institutions. And they were much easier to secure than, for example, a resolution, which would need the approval of committee, which means laborious efforts to get support from political groups.

But they were loathed by many MEPs, who felt it distracted from the more well-reasoned and serious work of the legislature.

The changes were proposed in a motion drafted by British Labour MEP Richard Corbett (S&D), and backed by 548 votes to 145. They came after Christofer Fjellner, from Sweden’s centre right Moderate Party (EPP) wrote last year about a ‘Written Declaration to end all Written Declarations’, saying, they were a remnant from the past, from a time when MEPs had little say in the legislative process. “Written declarations can only be signed, but never amended or debated publicly. They tend to be one-sided and lacking in complexity, instead of broad and inclusive as is the tradition in other decisions by parliament. Written declarations enhance tendencies for populistic simplicity,” he wrote.

Some written declarations raised awareness of important issues, for example, on the protection of European seas from chemical weapons, on violence against women, on combating corruption in European sports, and on children with Down’s syndrome. The written declaration on heavy goods vehicle collisions was important for the single market, as it concerned big, heavy-duty trucks moving across member states.

But most failed: a 2011 Parliament study found an average of 75 written declarations per year but most did not attain the required support, and only around 35% were adopted. Eight EU member states have an equivalent procedure, although there are some differences, such as in follow-up procedures. For example, the early day motion (EDM) in Britain is a single sentence, tabled by an MP to draw attention to subjects, although only four have ever been signed by more than 400 MPs.

Many written declarations were clearly the work of outsiders, with mixed results: while civil society can sometimes help in nurturing worthwhile campaigns, on other occasions they merely reflect small, well-organised groups who are able to gather MEPs. Estonian ALDE MEP Kaja Kallas would complain about the disproportionate amount of lobbying by authors, including sending multiple emails a day or sending a trainee or assistant to offices to hand out paper copies of the declarations.

The declarations often represented niche problems brought up within an MEP’s constituency, rarely of interest to the wider European public. While authors insisted the declaration would have an impact on EU policies, the reality was that they rarely effected change.

The ease with which they were dashed out, in a scattergun manner, made them feel frivolous, trivialising the Parliament’s power. Especially since there already exist platforms for civil society campaigners to make their voices heard, like the new European Citizens’ Initiative, the one million signatory petition that calls on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal.

Written declarations will now be phased out, and the current set will be the last. Some will mourn the loss of a campaigning instrument: it denies external stakeholders a light-touch but useful tool to raise awareness. Most will not. We all like ice cream, and artisanal gelato is welcome at the Burson-Marsteller offices any time. But there are better ways to celebrate ice cream than through the Parliament’s written declarations.

Words Leo Cendrowicz & Sam Kynman
Photos CC/Guilhem Vellut

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