STRASBOURG, France — Believe it or not, but in the age of tea party disgust with Washington politicians, Congress is actually still quite popular.
Just not in America.
Gallup on Friday revealed that only 10 percent of Americans approved of Congress, the lowest number ever recorded. But take a trip across the Atlantic, and you’ll find something different.
Here at the seat of the European Parliament, on France’s border with Germany, politicians and officials with the European parliamentary system openly admit that they would like to emulate America’s political and legislative system.
“We are a little bit like the United States before 1913,” secretary general of the European Parliament Klaus Welle told The Daily Caller and other American journalists during a meeting in his spacious office last week.
That was the year the United States ratified the 16th amendment, wiping out constitutional restrictions on a federal income tax.
That’s something the European Union hasn’t done yet. But officials like Welle are open about their desire for the countries of the E.U. to integrate more and resemble the federal system seen in the United States.
“We have the same tensions between the state level and the European Union level and that’s why — because the setup is similar — we try to learn from your system,” Welle said.
Some European politicians, including vice president of the European Commission Viviane Reding, have called for establishing a controversial new system termed the “United States of Europe.”
“We need a two-chamber system for Europe, as in the USA,” she said last year. “One day, perhaps, we ought to have a directly-elected President of the European Commission.”
“There’s a huge potential over here,” Welle added during the meeting. “Unfortunately, we might still have to wait for some decades for this to materialize.”
TheDC traveled with seven other U.S. journalists to Belgium and Strasbourg last week on a trip organized by the European Parliament’s Washington liaison office. The purpose of the trip was clear: getting the parliament, which doesn’t always get much media attention in the U.S., on the radar of Americans and the news media.
Numerous people involved in the E.U. political system spoke of ways European politicians are emulating America’s political system. Broadly, they want the prestige and power of Congress. Specifically, officials have looked at congressional hearings and the Government Accountability Office in the Congress as processes and governmental agencies to emulate.
“But one thing we try to avoid,” Welle said with a laugh, “is the popularity ratings of the U.S. Congress.”
The Ron Paul of the European Parliament
To get a sense of the staunch opposition to the idea of something like the “United States of Europe,” TheDC met with Daniel Hannan, a conservative member of the European Parliament from England, for dinner at L‘Ancienne Chapelle, a small restaurant just steps away from the magnificent Strasbourg Cathedral.
Hannan is well-known in American conservative circles for his outspokenness against European integration: He’s been on Fox News and has appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the yearly confab of the conservative movement in Washington, D.C. Had he been able to vote in the 2012 presidential election, he would have voted for former Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul, he has said.
In essence, Hannan is a member of the European Parliament but doesn’t think the European Parliament should exist. Others like him are referred to as “Euroskeptics.”
“I don’t mind the word skeptic,” he told me. “Skeptical is good. It means you want to know the truth. It means you’re looking objectively.”
Over a dinner of chicken with plums, Hannan lamented how some new members of the European Parliament become more supportive of the institution the longer they’re there, using a French phrase that translates into English as “your opinions follow how you’re earning your living.”
“I’ve seen it happen to lots of people,” Hannan said. “They’re elected as neutrals or as moderate Euroskeptics, especially if they come from countries where the salaries are low and the cost of living is cheap. They arrive here and they’re pulling an income that is four or five times what their prime minister earns. It would be unusual if this didn’t … begin to affect their view of whether it’s a good thing for them to keep their jobs.”
TheDC asked him about the European politicians who compare the E.U. to the United States government. He said the “parallel breaks down” when you look at America’s founding.
“You had a single language, you had compatible religious practices, you had the same legal system and you had a shared historical experience, that 13 colonies had just been through the same war, and had identified throughout that period as a unit,” Hannan said.
“None of those things is true in Europe,” he continued. “You have huge disparities of language, of historic experience, of political systems. There’s no pan-European party system. There’s no pan-European newspapers. There’s no pan-European public opinion.”
Hannan described the desires for European integration as reflective of the elite in European politics and not ordinary citizens of individual countries.
“I’m in favor of cosmopolitanism,” he said. “I’m all in favor of it. I’ve lived and worked all over Europe. I speak French and Spanish. Most people have not moved very far from where they were born. And those people are regarded by policy makers in Brussels with disdain and fear.”