Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time working on issues before the European Parliament. This experience has shown me just how powerful MEPs are in making laws that have a significant impact on life in the UK. My area of particular concern has been telecommunications where the great bulk of the rules are decided at a European level.
The process of deciding law in the European Parliament is much more complex than in Westminster. In Westminster virtually every word of our laws is drafted by the Government with the odd amendment passed in the House of Lords where there is no Government majority. The scrutiny process can throw up errors and occasionally creates such controversy that a proposal is delayed or abandoned. But it does not generally offer individual MPs the opportunity to make substantial changes to the law.
In the European Parliament, individual MEPs with key places on legislative committees have real power in the drafting of laws. They are then able to work with their political groups to swing support behind their proposals. The key dynamic is usually between the three big political groups – the socialists, the centre-right and the liberals – as two of these coming together can command a Parliamentary majority.
Yet, in the European elections on Thursday, the UK is likely to end up with fewer MEPs in these three main groups and therefore will potentially have less direct influence over legislation. The Conservatives have made their case for pulling out of the main centre-right group and claim they can still work effectively with their old allies from a new grouping. That remains to be seen.
If some of the polls are correct then UKIP will also have a good election. Their position is overtly on the fringes of the legislative process as they don’t believe in the EU institutions at all. They therefore cannot be relied upon to take an active role in debating the detail of legislative proposals that, as long as the EU does exist, will have a major impact on British citizens. Meanwhile the European Parliament has no real role in deciding issues such as EU treaties which belong to the UK and other national governments.
Many people in the UK are strongly hostile to the EU hence the appeal of UKIP. But we have somehow contrived for this to be expressed in the wrong elections. It would make far more sense for UKIP to be strong in the Westminster Parliament where they would have the power to debate and decide on their core issue of the UK’s position in the EU. It is of far less value for them to be in the European Parliament where, as long as we remain members, the UK’s interests can be better served by having MEPs who can advance our interests in the main political groups.
Whatever one’s views on long-term EU membership, the tests for a good UK MEP should be whether they play a full role in the current institutions, how well they can they work with MEPs from other countries, and are they a competent channel for representing the UK’s interests in this important law-making body.