Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Why we need to take the EP more seriously

Conservative Home - February 13th 2008

Dr Charles Tannock, MEP for London and Conservative Foreign Affairs Spokesman in the European Parliament, urges Conservtives to treat the role of MEPs more seriously.

The reselection of our candidates for the 2009 European elections continues apace, and I wish those shortlisted all the very best for the imminent postal ballot. I won’t comment here on the party board decision to top-list incumbent MEPs, apart from to say that as someone selected twice in open hustings I am the last person to complain about the party membership having the final say. However, the very fact that the top-listing compromise exercised so many of our blogging members would tend to suggest just how important they consider the job of an MEP to be. Or does it?

I should preface the rest of this article by stating that I am well aware of politicians’ tendency to assume an over-inflated sense of their own importance. I do not seek to argue that I am (or MEPs as individuals are) especially important but that the job of an MEP is important now and is likely to become more so in the future whether we like it or not. Nevertheless, I have lost count of the number of people who, on discovering my position, turn up their noses and dismiss the European Parliament as worthless, or if they wish to be polite or flattering ask me when am I going to apply for a Westminster seat.

Recently Alastair Burt MP visited Brussels to meet Conservative MEPs. On a personal level I was delighted to see him but I was somewhat frustrated to hear that his new dedicated role tasked by David Cameron is to ‘build links’ with MEPs, Council Leaders and Assembly members. He is not the first MP or PPS to the Party Leader to have been given this thankless task (although it is true to say he is the first to be given this as an exclusive role) since I was elected in 1999. As I pointed out to him, his predecessors had little success even though MEPs are now co-legislators on at least double as much UK law as MPs. If the lamentable Lisbon treaty goes through the European Parliament will acquire co-decision powers to veto or amend in over 90% of EU competences, up from the current 80%.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem. The Conservative Party seems to be in denial about the EU. On the one hand, we deplore the fact that two thirds of UK legislation originates not in Whitehall but in Brussels. However, when it comes to accepting that reality in practical policy terms, we largely go into denial mode. Most young aspiring and talented politicians I meet think only of Westminster as a serious career option. Brussels is still largely shunned as an opportunity for a serious political career, or at best seen as a launch pad by even those coming from parties committed to the European project as we have seen by the likes of the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg as well as his competitor Chris Huhne, both ex MEPs. Nevertheless I was pleased that my two former Conservative MEP colleagues who entered the 2005 UK parliament, namely Robert Goodwill and Theresa Villiers, had their experience in the European Parliament and talents recognised with accelerated promotions to front bench jobs.

Last October at party conference I sat next to a former member of the front bench. He asked me my role in the Conservative delegation, to which I replied that I was foreign affairs spokesman. This aroused his sceptical interest: ‘Why do we need a foreign affairs spokesman in Brussels?’ he huffed. This, to me, was another case of denial rather than ignorance – after all, this MP who had served as shadow minister in this area of policy would surely have known about the Common Foreign and Security Policy outlined in the Maastricht treaty negotiated by John Major. He may even know that as well as the EU being the largest multilateral Aid donor and controlling international trade policy that in future the European Parliament will control the budget of the external action service or EU diplomatic service. But it underlined to me that however influential the European Parliament becomes in making EU laws or scrutinising EU policy, the party back home sadly still prefers to think of MEPs as at best part of a powerless talking shop and at worst a waste of space.

The attitude in many other EU member states, and notably within other countries' Conservative parties, is starkly different. When governments change it is considered entirely normal, even appropriate, for an MEP of suitable talent to be extracted from Brussels to fill a senior ministerial position back home. The European Parliament contains a handful of former prime ministers and presidents and many former ministers. In this legislature alone several of my contemporaries have been drafted into government, where their knowledge of how things work in Brussels is considered invaluable. Bogdan Klich, a centre-right Polish MEP, was made defence minister last year; Toomas Ilves left the European Parliament when he was elected Estonia's state president. Of course, the British system in practice precludes non-Westminster parliamentarians from entering government - something that perhaps ought to change - but other countries see their senior MEPs in a much more positive light than Britain does.

Like it or not, the EU’s role in our lives is growing. Parliament has a chance to put a halt to that by refusing to ratify the Lisbon treaty. However, if, as we suspect, British MPs ratify the treaty and the matter is not referred to voters in a referendum as requested by our party and promised by Tony Blair, the European Parliament’s role will continue to grow. MEPs will extend their role as co-legislators across many more policy areas, and for all that the increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative parliamentary party in Westminster works itself into a frenzy MPs will have less legislative powers, although in fairness the Lisbon Treaty seeks to partially enhance the power of national parliaments in EU legislation. Also Theresa May in her discussion paper is right that we could do a lot more to increase the power of MPs over the executive in scrutinising what UK Ministers get-up to in the EU Council of Ministers as practiced by the Danish parliament which give specific mandates to vote one way or another to their Ministers.

I like most Conservatives am against the further ceding of powers to Brussels as embodied in the Lisbon treaty, without the express consent of the British people. However, even if the treaty is killed off the influence of MEPs is unlikely to go away. The party needs to accept this as a fact of life and to bring MEPs committed to fighting for British interests more into the mainstream. The logical consequence of relegating the work of MEPs and the European Parliament to the margins is to mentally withdraw from the European Union with a view to actual withdrawal at a later date. Much as that understandably appeals to many Tory party members, it has never been party policy and is unlikely to become so in the near future.