Parliament, European Style

Let’s start with a question.  Do you know who your MEP is?  Some among you will immediately notice a problem with that question: MEPs are elected using a proportional system (the D’Hondt version of party lists), so you have more than one for your region.

Another question.  Presuming you are a Liberal Democrat and have found an MEP you like in your region’s delegation, what party is they are a member of?  No, not Liberal Democrat.  I mean what European party do they represent?  Like me, did you have to google to discover it is the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and that  they are part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe?

And another.  When you voted, which party was your first choice?  Liberal Democrat, right?  So not the party your first choice will sit with in the European Parliament!

I’m sure some of you reading this knew the answers, but if you’re here, you’re probably an activist.  The average voter almost certainly can’t answer these questions.  Which highlights a very significant problem for the European Parliament.  To be a democracy, you need a demos – a pan-European pool of voters, voting on common issues.  Right now, people vote on national ideology and party, not for pan-European political parties; there is no European demos.

Worse than this, though some are ardently for or against Europe, the vast majority of voters are apathetic.  This is illustrated by turnout at European elections which was an abysmal 34.7% in 2009.  That UKIP have 12 out of 78 MEPs shows that a fair proportion who turned out to vote did so as a protest.

For a party that largely supports Europe (but I must stress wants significant reforms), this can’t be good news. We face a massive challenge between now and the next European elections in 2014.  While it is not realistic to create a true European demos in four years, we must make voters care.

We must make the common sense case for Europe – that there are things done better together than apart – and show the relevance to voters’ everyday lives.  We must also stress our desire for reform.  Critically we must debunk the myths; I addressed the size of the bureaucracy in a previous post but there are others, not least the myth of an all-powerful European super-state.

There are glimmers of hope.  Some European parties are starting to campaign on a Europe-wide platform, with common issues.  That we are in government, though with a largely eurosceptic party, will help.  It gives us a better platform to highlight the achievements and also to demonstrate that our support for Europe is not blind: we want significant reform, including repatriation of some powers (for example the Working Time Directive).

On reform, simple application of political liberalism and economic liberalism throws up some obvious targets: the Common Agricultural Policy is deeply economically illiberal; the Commission, though the engine room of the EU, fails almost every test of democratic accountability; and much of EU social policy is better addressed nationally.

In some ways, Conservative euroscepticism will help us.  EU institutions have undergone what feels like a perpetual revolution; with The Coalition commitment to referendums for any new treaties or for further transfer of power to Europe these institutions have a chance of stability.  With stability, they should (with help from us) become more familiar to voters and help dispel the myth of labyrinthine complexity.

In summary, we must:

  • Make the common sense case for Europe
  • Debunk the myths that surround Europe
  • Ensure the stability and accountability of European institutions
  • Demonstrate our desire for (and ability to) reform by working with the Conservatives; delivering one significant reform must be our minimum target!

Back to some questions.  Who introduces legislation?  Not the parliament; the European Commission has legislative initiative and proposes all legislation.  This and the relation of the Commission to the other bodies later.

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