The European Parliament is the soldiers' advocate too
Between 4 and 7 June, 375 million European voters will have the task of choosing who will represent them in the European Parliament.
Their votes will set Parliament's political compass for the years to 2014 and that is why voting in the European elections is every bit as important as voting for national MPs or regional assembly members. Too many voters are still under the impression that the European Parliament has little decision making to do, but the reality is very different. Already, Parliament and the Council have an equal say in 75% of the lawmaking for Europe - and the legislative decisions they take affect everybody because they concern such important matters as environmental and climate protection, strengthening consumers' rights and tackling the financial and economic crisis. Issues on the political agenda range from the standardisation of all mobile phone chargers and the reduction of roaming charges for foreign calls and text messages, to better safety on our roads and railways and more generous refunds for travellers who suffer delays. However, the European Parliament does more than share in lawmaking: it is also a budgetary authority. In that capacity it already determines, along with the Council, how the annual EU budget of currently around EUR 120 billion will be spent - and that means it can exert influence in many areas of Union policy, including for example foreign and security policy.
As recently as February 2009 the European Parliament voted by a massive majority of 483 to 111 to renew the call for Europe to have its own armed forces, and it made no bones about its dissatisfaction with the existing level of cooperation. The fact is that integration in NATO is already tighter than the level of cooperation justifiably being sought in Europe.
The concept now being proposed by the European Parliament and known as SAFE (which stands for 'Synchronised Armed Forces Europe') is a straightforward one to implement, it has positive associations and it affords scope for development. Social cover for servicemen and women during operations is an important aspect of the proposals.
The European Parliament is proposing that we begin to build a common defence policy by synchronising deployment. Soldiers themselves have repeatedly made the point that troops deployed together must also be trained together. If we want to achieve synchronised deployment, then we must - and we can - learn from current and past operations (best-practice procedures). It is clear from these that certain important and immediate steps are required.
• The European Parliament is arguing for proactive further development of cooperation between national armed forces, with the aim of ever closer synchronisation, and it is proposing that this process and the armed forces concerned should be given the name SAFE ('Synchronised Armed Forces Europe').
• We believe SAFE will allow all the Member States sufficient room for manoeuvre - both those which are already practising closer cooperation and those which are still holding back, and we want it to be organised as an opt-in model based on voluntary closer synchronisation.
• Within the SAFE framework, we support step-by-step harmonisation of training standards, principles of leadership and rules of engagement as well as living and working conditions during operations and the basic legal framework, including for example rights and duties.
The European Parliament is arguing for the development of basic standards for equipment and for medical care and social security arrangements in the event of death, injury or incapacity. It is also high time that we drew up a list of common rules of engagement and introduced the principle of Europe-wide task sharing in relation to military capabilities.
That is why we are advocating closer European-level cooperation on training, maintenance and logistics as an essential precondition for making defence spending more effective. We are also calling for military careers in national armed forces to be opened up to Europeans from any of the Member States, following the practice in the Belgian armed forces.
It is clear to me when I talk to voters that people today are still interested in European Union politics. They repeatedly make the point, however, that they do not have enough information about the EU and its work. The European Parliament elections on 4-7 June will give people a reason to learn more about Europe.
The European Parliament is actively monitoring the current developments in European security and defence policy and it believes that its role includes engaging in dialogue with members of the armed forces in the Union.
That is why I would ask you to be sure to get out and vote, or to use the postal vote system. Your votes will strengthen the European Parliament in its work, and that includes standing up for the interests of servicemen and women.
Dr Hans-Gert Poettering
President of the European Parliament,
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