Celebrating 40 years of elections to the European Parliament
2019-02-01 00:00:00 -

Michael McGowan


It is ironic that as the UK is obsessed with negotiations to leave the European Union, the rest of the EU is celebrating the 40th anniversary of direct elections to the European Parliament.


The first elections were held in June 1979, in which French liberal Simone Veil became the first president of the European Parliament. Citizens of nine European countries inaugurated the first internationally elected assembly, which marked the end of a road a quarter of a century long towards its democratic legitimacy.


During the past four decades, the European Parliament has developed from a consultative assembly to a legislative body, also responsible for budgetary control, and a key factor in bringing about those changes has been the demands and actions of the European Parliament itself.


Step by step, the European Parliament acquired an increasing and significant number of legislative powers with the Council of the European Union and secured a considerable expansion of the competences first of the European Economic Community and then the European Union.


That first Europe-wide poll by direct universal suffrage is often termed as the ‘election of the century’, and resulted in significant changes to the life of the continent. Today, the European Parliament is co-legislator and budgetary authority with the Council.


I have had the privilege of serving as a member of the European Parliament for 15 of those 40 years and have witnessed and been involved in changes as the EP has evolved into an influential legislative body.


Since the launch of the EU by the six visionary founder states, the European Parliament has become a directly elected parliament of 28 member states with powers and influence unlike any other parliament in the whole world.


It is important to remember that the founding of the EU was the brave decision of the founder states to end the conflicts and war that had brought havoc to the continent of Europe for centuries, including the bloody history of the 20th century.


The creation and development of the EU has been considered the greatest peace initiative in world history, and I was privileged to be invited to attend the ceremony in Oslo when the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of this achievement.


The changes in Europe and the rest of the world during the past 40 years have been very much part of the history of the European Union itself.

The return to democracy in Greece, Portugal and Spain opened the door for them to join the EU, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the Cold War led to former eastern European countries, previously part of the Soviet block, to become members of the union.


Globally, the EU became a greater force and provided important opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa and solidarity with its people, unlike the governments of some individual European states such as the UK, whose then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismissed Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”.


The EU forged links with some of the poorest countries in the world, and I was privileged to be involved in this work as president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament. I also served as vice president of the Joint EU-ACP Parliamentary Assembly which linked the countries of the EU with those of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific.


The EU has played an important role, too, in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the ending of the Troubles, which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.


It is to be celebrated that the directly elected European Parliament has developed by its own efforts from a consultative assembly to the legislative body it is today, and long may it continue.


Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament


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