The Unwanted European Parliament
I am not Indian but this week I can vote in the world’s biggest election in terms of voters – other than in India. The European Parliament is here to stay. Yes it needs reform. Yes, national parliaments need to be involved in EU law-making but those dreaming of abolishing the European Parliament remain fantasists. Much as the European Parliament generates easy mocking copy, especially over its perambulations between Brussels and Strasbourg it is time – irrespective of voting Tory, Labour, LibDem or Ukip – to take it seriously for three reasons.
First, its debates and decisions shape European policy. The European Court of Justice ruling against Google on ‘the right to delet’ – the decision that an individual citizen should control what is made public about his or her past not a profit-seeking private firm – follows endless anguished debates about the issue in the European Parliament.
Just as British judges are told they have to take the will of the Commons into account in their rulings so too does the ECJ have to pay attention to the European Parliament’s deliberations.
Second, the European Parliament now has powers of co-decision with the Commission and the heads of government granted to it under the Lisbon Treaty. The first big test of these new powers will be once the results are announced on May 25th. The two main political groupings – the centre-left Socialists and Democrats and the centre-right European People’s Party – are mutually insisting that their candidates to be European Commission president much be accepted and appointed.
The last three Commission presidents were, in effect, chosen by London as Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair vetoed candidates backed by Paris or Berlin and then proposed someone to Britain’s liking. That veto power has gone. Now the European Parliament is king-maker for key EU leadership posts.
The third reason the European Parliament is important is the number of ex national leaders and ministers who go there. Some of the British MEPs from all three parties are of high quality, as good as UK ministers or their shadows. They are unknown because the default setting of media coverage of the European Parliament is to deride and ignore it.
To be sure there are ‘nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes’ as Nick Clegg described MEPs David Cameron linked up with 2009 but with the majority of British parliamentarians not even elected we are not in a good position to wag fingers.
MEPs are far better financed than any national politicians and a large block of Ukip MEPs for example, will wreak havoc for Cameron, MIliband and Clegg alike as they campaign in the eleven months between their election and the general election next year.
The campaign leaflets of the main parties are all about domestic issues. There is no enthusiasm for or engagement with the European Union. In Berlin, there are posters everywhere for the European Parliament election. There has been serious TV debates, maybe not more enlightening than duel between over-briefed US presidential candidate but they are happening.
Nick Clegg got monstered by Nigel Farage on BBC2 and in turning the Ukip leader got kebabbed on LBC. But has anyone seen a debate about Europe rather than why the mainstream parties don’t like Ukip?
In Berlin, the streets are bedecked with European Parliament posters. There was one lively meeting in London but it was in French as the top Socialist MEP, Pervenche Berès, came to hunt for votes amongst French immigrant workers in London. She said there would be no offer to Cameron that can weaken the single market and its social rules and given she chairs the Employment and Social Committee of the European Parliament, her statement matters. But her packed meeting took place 200 metres from the Guardian office yet not a single journalist or UK politician turned up.
This indifference to the European Parliament and reduction of this week’s election to simply how many vote for Ukip is unworthy of serious politicians and commentators. If there is one thing worse than Euroscepticism or Europhilia it is Euroignorance. Pretending the European Parliament doesn’t matter is a foolish and very British error.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Europe Minister. His book on Brexit – Britain Leaving the EU will be published after the European Parliament election