A Written Declaration (WD) is a text of a maximum of 200 words on a matter that falls within the competence of the European Union. It was created as a mechanism for MEPs to raise awareness about issues that might otherwise get overlooked. As such, it represents the views of its signatories only, and not those of the European Parliament.
During my two years in the Parliament I have also signed several WDs that raise various important issues, for example, on the protection of European seas from chemical weapons, on violence against women, or on the protection of regional and minority languages in the EU.
As for content, a WD can be on anything, as long as it does not address an issue currently actively dealt with by the Parliament. The topics vary from raising awareness about chronic illnesses to calling for the appropriation of special cultural/heritage status for local festivals or artisan products.
A few months ago a colleague of mine sent out a “Written Declaration to end all Written Declarations” which made me wonder whether there is any sense in signing these declarations at all.
According to the rules, a WD is only adopted if it is signed by half of all MEPs within three months of its publication; otherwise it lapses. Due to this, authors of a written declaration often have to resort to a disproportionate amount of lobbying to ensure that their declaration gains enough support in the allocated time.
This includes sending multiple emails a day asking colleagues to support their initiative or sending a trainee or assistant around colleague’s offices to hand out paper copies of the declarations and signature forms. In short, a considerable administrative effort goes into the adoption of a WD.
As mentioned before, the WD was created in 1983 as a tool for MEPs to raise issues that would otherwise not gain enough attention. Over time, however, the Parliament’s power of initiative has increased, and the WD no longer serves its original purpose.
For one, as a WD is not an official document of the European Parliament, it carries no political weight. That is, it cannot call upon the Parliament or other EU bodies to take any action.
In addition, as it is authored by a handful of MEPs without any public debate on the issue, and is constrained by the 200-word limit, it often gives an overly simplistic and one-sided view of the issue it deals with.
It must be taken into account that a WD is often the result of the work of lobbyists who want to show their clients that they’ve achieved something or it represents narrow problems brought up by an MEP’s constituency, who expect the WD to have an impact on EU policies.
In reality, they are largely incapable of bringing about change. This, in turn, feeds the sense of disempowerment recently on the rise in Europe, and risks frustrating the already sceptical public (“politicians only talk, but bring no change”).
Not wanting to deny that some issues raised in WDs do merit wider recognition, I have to conclude that the WD in general has become a mechanism for promoting niche interests at great administrative cost.
Either the subjects they deal with are so local and specific that they should not be discussed at EU level (recent examples: a WD on Europe’s olive oil sector and the protection of olive cultivation, on setting up a European strategy for the management, control and possible eradication of the Asian hornet) or else they are just ridiculous (a WD on European necktie day/a gelato day, on signposting of last exits before toll roads).
Many of the issues would stand a much better chance of being solved if they were addressed through a different medium.
For issues that really should be addressed at the EU level, there already exist platforms that citizens may turn to have their voices heard. The most powerful of these is the European Citizens’ Initiative which allows the public to call on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal.
Though it does require the signatures of a million citizens to be launched, obtaining these should not be more difficult than obtaining the signatures of half of the MEPs. The requirement also serves as a useful filter, making sure that only issues which affect citizens across Europe are discussed at EU level.
In addition to the above, stakeholders can approach individual MEPs and ask them to launch an own-initiative report and ask for the Commission’s involvement. Either of these approaches will result in a much broader debate than a WD could ever foster, and can bring about meaningful change.
For these reasons, I have decided to no longer sign any written declarations.
This article was first published by Kaja Kallas as a blog piece under the title Why I am not signing written declarations