The European Parliament comes of age
European Journal - March 2011
It’s time the British public and the media took MEPs and the European Parliament more seriously. I should qualify that remark by saying that I am well aware of the tendency of politicians of all shapes and sizes to assume an exaggerated sense of their own importance.
However, my plea is not motivated by personal aggrandisement but by the need to project British national interest. On any objective measure there is no doubting that MEPs’ political responsibility has increased markedly in the past 20 years since the Maastricht treaty, when co-decision between parliament and Council was introduced, and particularly so since the Lisbon treaty came into force in December 2009, when its powers were extended. Certainly in almost twelve years as an MEP I have noticed far greater interest in and coverage of my work by my London constituents and the media, although ironically foreign media are often more interested in my work than British journalists.
Many Britons, and particularly those opposed to the UK’s membership of the EU, tend to deny the political importance of the European Parliament. They do so for many reasons. In our political system it is assumed that Westminster is the place to be for an ambitious politician, so much so that at the last European election three Conservative MEPs stood down to seek election – all successfully – to the green benches. I am often asked when I am going to make the same switch, as though the European Parliament is simply a staging post for a real political career. I usually take such comments as a compliment from wellwishers!
Some Eurosceptics have a natural visceral dislike of all things EU-related, which makes them dismiss the European Parliament as yet another EU institution that must be exclusively full of dangerous federalists (although being elected by proportional representation it has all shades of opinion and plenty of secessionists, ranging from the democratic wing typified by UKIP to unpleasant extremist communist and fascist parties). Others denounce it as an irrelevant talking shop because they do not know or prefer to deny that up to two-thirds of UK domestic legislation originates in Brussels and 95 per cent of proposed EU legislation issubject to amendment or even rejection by the European Parliament. Others still deny the European Parliament’s significance precisely because they know that it accounts for so much UK legislation, but wouldrather not know.
This mentality is compounded by the British media, which prefers to maintain the fiction that all powers and influence are located in the Westminster village because such a notion simplifies the narrative and power of the lobby. However, somewhat unbelievably none of the British tabloids bother to maintain journalists in Brussels to cover the work of the EU, relying instead on rumour and hearsay to churn out their anti-EU copy. Most broadsheets, on the other hand, do have staffers or stringers in Brussels but they are extremely stretched by the workload of covering the gamut of EU affairs.
For as long as the UK remains a member of the EU, belittling the institutional role of the European Parliament and the political role of MEPs is a profoundly counter-productive strategy. Equally, it is useless for MPs to bemoan the loss of sovereignty entailed by our membership of the EU because ultimately Westminster is a sovereign parliament in a way that the European Parliament is not, and never will be.
The decision to withdraw Britain from the EU could only ever be taken by the UK parliament (although in reality there would undoubtedly be the need for prior confirmation by a national referendum). Only MPs have the absolute right to amend or repeal UK legislation related to our membership of the EU. MEPs have no legal say whatsoever on the fundamental issue of whether Britain is or is not a member of the EU, a somewhat ironic situation for UKIP given that the party’s only elected parliamentarians and entire leadership sit in a legislature whose raison d’être they reject. Whatever one thinks of the Lisbon treaty, it has increased the legislative powers of MEPs even more than was the case under the previous Nice and Amsterdam treaties. The European Parliament is colegislator (co-decision) with the Council of Ministers in almost all policy areas that are dealt with at EU level.
The big change post-Lisbon in the past fifteen months relates to trade and agriculture, both of which are managed through common EU policies. Previously these were matters just for the Council and Commission, and subject only to an opinion of the Parliament. Now MEPs have an equal say, which means that the European Parliament can decide whether the EU embraces free trade agreements or protectionism; whether the EU reforms the Common Agricultural Policy or continues to spend 40 per cent of the EU budget on farming. I am currently fighting for the passage of an EU-Colombia free trade agreement, which British trade unions vigorously oppose; recently MEPs approved an EU-South Korea FTA and we are hoping to see a similar deal with India later this year.
In fact, virtually the only policy area in which the Council of Ministers as an intergovernmental structure retains exclusivity is in matters related to foreign policy and defence. It is simply a myth that the EU undermines Britain’s sovereign right to exercise its own independent foreign policy. In reality Member States usually manage to craft a collective robust and pragmatic stance on most major foreign policy issues – what’s known as a ‘common position. In most cases the collective message of 27 countries is a more powerful projection of our national interests so Britain generally benefits from the multilateral rather than the unilateral approach, although sometimes the interests of just one Member State can mean a watered-down ‘lowest common denominator’ position for all.
However, Britain retains a veto in the Council on foreign policy issues. Some of the more federalist MEPs wanted a more communautaire approach to foreign policy post-Lisbon – or at least qualified majority voting in the Council. But foreign policy, rightly in my view, remains one of the last bastions of member-state prerogative, requiring unanimity and consensus before any formal policy position can be expressed by the High Representative Baroness Ashton. The situation is likely to remain this way for the foreseeable future. Britain is free to conduct its foreign policy as it wishes, including – if the government decided – to propose leaving the EU altogether, a procedure for which is outlined for the first time by the Lisbon treaty.
Nevertheless, the Council’s inter-governmental exclusivity on foreign policy does not mean the European Parliament has no influence whatsoever in this sector. In fact MEPs have considerable influence, given the fact that they cover all 27 Member States and all conceivable shades of political opinion. The Committee on Foreign Affairs, on which I sit (known by its French acronym of AFET), comprises several former Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of their respective EU countries.
As coordinator on AFET for the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) I am constantly being lobbied by ministers, ambassadors, think-tank experts and pressure-group campaigners, all arguing for their respective countries and causes. They know that through its parliamentary resolutions, the deliberations of AFET, its parliamentary delegations and other mechanisms such as debates and parliamentary questions, the European Parliament has a powerful voice – not only on foreign policy but also the intertwined areas of trade, aid, human rights, security and defence.
More generally MEPs have many rights and responsibilities with regard to foreign policy, both by treaty and by inter-institutional convention. On an institutional level MEPs have rights and duties enshrined in the Lisbon treaty to exercise democratic oversight and scrutiny of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP – created by the Maastricht treaty) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), which until the Lisbon treaty came into force was called the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
MEPs generally, and those on AFET in particular, are informed and consulted about CFSP and CSDP developments through frequent meetings withBaroness Ashton and her senior officials, and also Stefan Füle, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy. They approve the initial five-year appointment of the Commission and they can vote to remove the Commission, as they did in 1999. MEPs also have control over the budget and the staff regulations of the new European External Action Service (EEAS); they control the budgets of civilian CSDP missions (such as EULEX in Kosovo) and the administrative costs of military missions (such as the anti-piracy EUNAVFOR/ATALANTA mission off the coast of Somalia). The European Parliament also ratifies – or rejects – all the EU’s international agreements and treaties. I am the EuropeanParliament’s rapporteur for Montenegro, which was recently endorsed as a candidate for EU accession. My periodic reports represent the Parliament’s view on its progress towards EU accession. Ultimately MEPs can choose in extremis to reject Montenegro’s accession by a single vote.
One particularly interesting new function that MEPs now have is to hold de facto confirmation hearings for senior EEAS nominations – EU heads of mission in strategically important countries and EU Special Representatives. This right, which is not formally in the Lisbon treaty and which was conceded in negotiations by the High Representative, is not a right or responsibility that British parliamentarians enjoy, although perhaps it should be a role for a reformed second chamber, drawing upon the US Senate model. For the European Parliament, this democratic oversight is also important, even if in fact the EEAS is not the dramatic new departure it is sometimes made out to be. The reality is that the EEAS mainly turned the long-standing ubiquitous Commission delegations to third countries and international organisations into EU delegations, in response to the EU’s acquisition of legal personality under Lisbon. The only real difference now is that the EEAS includes seconded diplomats from national foreign ministries, giving it a more overtly diplomatic flavour.
Lisbon is not just about enhancing the role of MEPs. The treaty contains important provisions regarding dialogue and cooperation between the European Parliament and national parliaments, in particular with regard to joint scrutiny of the EU’s external action. It is essential that Westminster engages with the European Parliament on this issue, just as it is also essential that MPs hold ministers to account for the decisions they take with regard to EU foreign policy in the Council of Ministers. Under Lisbon, Westminster and the other 26 national parliaments will have new rights of scrutiny of EU legislation, the so called ‘yellow card’ powers.
The European Commission will be obliged to submit draft legislation to national parliaments via the publication of its annual works programme. National parliaments will then have eight weeks to study the legislation and if appropriate submit a reasoned opinion as to why the legislation contradicts the principle of subsidiarity or proportionality. If one third of parliaments raise objections to legislation (one quarter in the case of security, justice and home affairs matters), the Commission will be obliged to review the legislation. All the more reason, therefore, for MPs to forge strong links with MEPs and national parliaments to help shape the EU’s policies. As one Westminster MP said to me recently and fairly hostile to the EU we need the MEPs on board as you are the only elected UK politicians who really understand in depth the complexity of how the EU actually works.
Moreover, national parliaments will have an important role in evaluating the implementation of policies relating to the area of security, freedom and justice. They will have a formal responsibility for the monitoring of the activities of Eurojust and Europol – two bêtes noires of those most opposed to the EU project, but organisations that require our attention rather than our blanket rejection. And they willparticipate in the inter-parliamentary cooperation mechanisms with the European Parliament, known as COSAC (legislative committees) and COFAC (foreign affairs committees) in their French acronyms, although attendance by MPs has been poor so far.
Those fundamentally opposed to Britain’s membership of the EU will undoubtedly dismiss these Lisbon treaty provisions as toothless and cosmetic. But they are only toothless and cosmetic if we make them so. Whether we like it or not, the Lisbon treaty is now the working architecture of the EU and the UK is obliged to work within it. The Conservative-led coalition government is committed to uphold the principle of constructive engagement by the UK with the EU even though the Conservative Party remains deeply critical that the previous Labour government denied voters a referendum on the Lisbon treaty which ceded more powers to the EU. You can be sure that other national parliaments in the EU will take their enhanced responsibilities under Lisbon very seriously. In fact, many of them already do: for example ministers in Denmark must appear before the Danish parliament to set out their negotiating position ahead of EU summits, and the national parliament must endorse this strategy. We should seek to emulate this system at Westminster.
Westminster reflects all shades of the nuanced and complex debate about the EU and Britain’s part in it. However, we cannot allow the ideological battle to distract us from the practical realities of our everyday relationship with our partners in Europe. If we are to be a member of the EU – and there is clearly no majority currently at Westminster to withdraw Britain from the EU – then we must surely exploit the system in every way to our advantage. Refusing to engage with the new architecture and with Britain’s MEPs will simply leave us isolated and not defend our important national interests.