Abolishing an elected European Parliament is no way forward – a response to Jack Straw

February 22, 2012 8:37 am

I don’t know what annoys me more – that a high-level Labour politician can have such misguided ideas, or that the outcome of an event is reported in such a one-sided manner in the press.

I am referring to The Guardian’s report on today’s IPPR event on the EU’s democratic deficit (I attended), in which former Foreign Minister Jack Straw stated that what he called an ‘experiment’ – direct elections to the European Parliament – had failed and should be abandoned, because election turnouts at EP elections had been declining since the first direct elections to the European Parliament held in 1979.

I don’t deny that there is a problem with election turnout for European Parliament elections – the 34.7% turnout in 2009 is not high enough. But when looking at the stats, EP turnout has, if anything, been gradually increasing since 1979 in the UK, while decreasing in the rest of the EU. Also, as Jack would himself no doubt admit, European Parliament elections are classic second order elections (i.e. people vote on national rather than EU issues), something that he admits to fostering having stated at the very same event how “the commissars had filleted” Robin Cook’s efforts to draft a common EU-wide social democratic manifesto in 2004.

Jack could of course look at his very own constituency for some parallels. Turnout in Blackburn was 73.96% in 1979 and 62.9% in 2009 (and indeed was even lower - 55.5% – in 2001), and a similar pattern has been seen across the EU. Turnouts are declining everywhere, just from a higher starting point in national elections. When we worry about turnout at Westminster elections we try to find ways to solve the issue; we don’t call the parliament into question.

The counterbalance to Straw at the IPPR event, blissfully ignored in The Guardian’s one-sided piece, came from LSE professor Simon Hix. He explained how the election system used for EP elections in different countries made a difference – where open lists are used (Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden), voters are likely to have more contact with their MEPs, and turnout is higher (something I’ve previously called for on LabourList). Who, of course, was it that decided on the UK’s closed list election system for the EP? Labour’s 1997 cabinet, of which Straw was a member.

The Guardian underlines the role of IPPR, saying “The thinktank has launched a project on the future of Europe that is certain to influence Labour thinking”. What the piece fails to note is that the audience in the room was much more receptive to the ideas of Hix than they were those of Straw.

  • http://twitter.com/John_J_C_Moss John Moss

    Why have a European Parliament at all? It is just a massively expensive toothless talking shop.

    If the EU is an agreement between nation states, it has no need for a parliament. It should only have a parliament if it is a state in its own right and then that parliament should be sovereign. 

    Just like the Euro, the EU Parliament is another EU institution which works neither in theory nor in practice.

    • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

      You are not factually correct. The European Parliament is co-legislator for almost all EU law. That’s not toothless in my view.

      It’s not as if there are just two types of political entity – states and international organisations. The EU is somewhere between the two, and it has more power than any other international organisation. Hence it’s right that citizens have a say over how it’s run.

      There are many downsides to the EP, but the fact it is elected is not one of them!

      • W G

        Jon,

        The problem we have here is that you are part of the EU bubble; just like so many of the Labour party hierarchy and union barons you have absolutely no direct contact to what is going on down here on planet Earth.

        You speak of the European Parliament being co-legislator for EU law, but these are EU laws made by EU lawyers, taught by EU lawyers, and imposed by EU lawyers. 
        If the people in the EU’s nation states don’t understand what are EU laws and what are national laws they just ignore them; the laws, like the institutions, become irrelevant and their imposition resented.

        As for the EU parliament working better and being more representative – well, I have noticed that, against a backdrop of austerity and hardship, the increase of salaries and pensions in the EU carries on regardless; I don’t know who the European Parliament represents but it is certainly not the 99% at street level.

        • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

          What a delightful contradiction – you tell me I am too much part of the Brussels bubble, then make assertions that I do not know how EU law is made.

          Before you get to EU law you have the essential problem that representative democracy at EU level does not – yet – satisfy the criterion for a functioning party system, basically that at the next election you can throw a party/parties out if you don’t like what they did, because the EP cannot influence the overall direction of European integration. Therein lies the main problem.How getting rid of an elected EP helps solve that one is beyond me. The way to solve that is to make sure the composition of the Commission is party-politically determined, and hence to give EP elections real meaning.

          As for the ‘you have absolutely no direct contact to what is going on down here on planet Earth’ – it’s stretching it to draw that conclusion on the basis of this post and the comment above! I run a small IT business that has to struggle with the very real and everyday problems of cashflow and the practical impact of EU law not working – data roaming costing a fortune, headaches with EU-wide VAT and banking etc. Close enough to ‘planet Earth’ for you?

          • W G

            Jon

            I’m sorry Jon, but I don’t recall in my comment accusing you of not knowing how EU law is made – I’m certain that you have been through the EU system.
            On your second point of representative democracy – it is a simple case of a distant group of people in Brussels not being supported by a demos – how do we arrive at a democratic EU parliament when two thirds of UK residents don’t even notice that there is a EU parliament; truth to tell, the people who do vote vote to keep the other guy out.

            I am tempted to apologize for the “planet Earth” remark – but your IT business has been built on the patronage of the Labour party/EU  hierarchy – I am, as a taxpayer, in part paying you.

            That is not to say that I don’t admire you for what you have achieved in your life, you happen to fill that spot, but that there are people in society who have to pay the price.

            What is more important – nurses on the ward or paying out millions of pounds on trying to make an unpopular institution popular. 

          • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

            On European demos see this.

            Not voting in EP elections – as the system works currently – is a perfectly sensible and legitimate choice. It is due to a structural problem at EU level – that the Parliament is not adequately in control of the Executive. Improve that and you should improve citizen connection with the EU project.

            You ask What is more important – nurses on the ward or paying out millions of pounds on trying to make an unpopular institution popular – this is not a fair point. Many studies over the years have pointed to overall economic benefit of the EU due to bringing down trade barriers etc., so the EU’s existence helps nurses and everyone else. Also the total budget for the EP is something like 0.03% of EU GNI at the very most (3% of the EU budget, which itself is 1% of GNI). That’s not to say that it couldn’t be done more cheaply, and there is indeed still considerable waste in the EU budget (CAP for example), but it’s not either nurses or EU institutions – it’s not that simple.As for the professional point – yes, some of the work I do is for EU institutions and Labour politicians. But equally I work for companies such as Google and Unilever and for NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and WWF. I refuse to accept that there are people in society who are – to use your words – ‘paying the price’ for my behaviour. OK, I might not – personally – be under direct threat of redundancy, but hell, that’s why I donate time and money to Labour and other causes. Or does is that simply not valid in your view?

          • W G

            Jon,

            I’m afraid that the demos for the EU project will be directly affected by its relevance and cost to the European people, if the cost outweighs the relevance the people will reject it.
            I also think that it is impossible to put a cost to the EU; the trickle down costs of EU organizations, the COR for example, are extremely difficult to quantify.
            And yes, I am well aware of the opaqueness of the EU accounts, and the national responsibilities to this issue – no doubt you would advocate more bean counters to solve yet another EU created problem.
            Once again you seek to twiddle with the engine whilst people, such as myself, don’t want the damn train.
            The EU and its representatives are always glad to inform me of how small a percentage of GNI I am paying, or prattle on about bringing down trade barriers (a nonsensical argument IMO; countries deal with countries for mutual advantage under international trade rules) but I only see one thing –speaking as a working class oik, and that is that a privileged class of political elite are living the high life whilst the European people, and I’m thinking of Greece here, are being hung out to dry; I resent every single penny taken from me in the furtherance of this situation.
            It is we, at street level, who are seeing our pensions disappear and are being told to work longer; it is we who take the hit.

            I think that this discussion is going to continue down the usual trails; I know that I will never convince you and that you will never convince me of the relevance of the European Union in its present form.
            I do however appreciate that you have taken the time to converse – for too long the EU has been a taboo subject in which the ordinary people have not been allowed to have a say.
            But before we all make a leap to a democratic EU parliament we have to establish whether the European people share the same destination as those members of the EU who are dictating the direction of travel; certainly, at the moment, inhabitants of the UK don’t seem to share that vision.

          • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

            In essence there are two logical end points to the EU integration process – either we take the whole lot apart and end up back where we were in the 1950s, or it has to evolve into some sort of federal political system where there is proper representative democracy. You advocate the former, I advocate the latter and that’s fair enough. What is really pernicious is the middle position defended by people like Jack Straw – that the EU is some kind of technocrats über-technocracy and that somehow is going to solve our problems without any citizen engagement.

            Your point on Greece is entirely valid, and what is happening there absolutely demonstrates why democratic accountability is vital. Greece’s predicament is due to the people not having control, and due to the bailouts being handled by 27 heads of state and government behind closed doors. Again here we’re at the same juncture – a Eurozone that might better benefit people would be one where there are fiscal transfers from rich to poor when the going gets tough for a country for whatever reason. What we’ve got instead – mostly as a result of a bunch of right wing governments in EU countries instead – is austerity now to make up for problems stoked up from yesteryear.

            That latter paragraph I think sums up the mess we’re in with how we talk about the EU. Because I am in favour of its existence people assume I am going to defend all it does. That’s simply not so. It does wrong things, it makes errors, it needs to work more to achieve economic growth, to redistribute wealth, to help out people across all walks of life. It doesn’t do that well enough now, but that’s not to say it cannot, and without an elected European Parliament it’s never going to.

          • Winston_from_the_Ministry

            I wouldn’t really call it an IT business:
             

            “Consultancy and training for clients in the public sector, political
            parties and NGOs, assisting them with social media strategies, writing
            for the web and online reputation management. Website design and
            development using WordPress.”

            Oooooh, you teach luddites how to build blogs. As for being on planet earth?…

            “Work experience in a diverse range of government and political jobs: UK
            government professional training, UK government and European Parliament
            administration, lobbying and advocacy, project management,
            communications, website design.”

            Not in my book you’re not, most definitely part of the bubble.

  • AlanGiles

    Jack Straw made so many appalling decisions during his time in government that I automatically take the opposite point of view (the same is true of Blunkett, Byers and Hewitt) to his.

    I even wonder if he really feels that passionately about the E.U. or if it is just another case of an old has-been who just longs to see his name in the papers again, and perhaps a chance of a TV interview. 

    Liam Fox has made his bid to be remembered today. I think politicians are like ageing TV personalities, and once they’ve left prime time, scrabbling about even for a breakfast TV gig becomes the holy grail.

    • treborc

       See Prescott doing the media at the moment explaining with that silly look on his face when he is trying to look compassionate or serious, telling us how he would be a great out standing , Police commissioner or leader of the what ever they want, so long as the money is OK

  • somebody

    Jon, come on, your response is also  one-sided. I won’t repeat the arguments here why MEPs are of very varying quality and do not represent the voters’ real preferences. They also don’t elect the Commission (yes, they always aim to remove one Commissioner from the ones proposed by national governments but that’s just flexing muscles)  and the option of removing it exists more on paper rather than as a real possibility.
    Most decisions in the EP are taken not along party lines but on the basis of consensus so there is almost no scope for a real political debate (I’ve read Hix, I know he would disagree). Most MEPs are more concerned with increasing their own powers (which after Lisbon have increased substantially as you correctly point out) instead of using the ones they have appropriately.
    With the current institutional structure of the EU, the  EP is useless.  What’s wrong with having delegations from national parliaments instead of direct elections?

  • Omar Salem

    Sorry to be a pedant, but surely you mean turnout in Blackburn was 62.9% in 2010, not 2009?

  • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

    Look, Jack Straw made a point – that elections to the EP should be abolished, and his reason was low turnout. That is what I set out to rebut in the piece above. This is not a post about the entire nature of the EP or the EU as a whole!

    On your specific points: MEPs are of very varying quality (I used to work for a dire one), but so are MPs, Councillors etc. – any parliament has this problem. Straw’s appointed Parliament idea would have this problem.
    Whether the EP reflects voter preferences – because it’s a (roughly) proportional election system, it broadly does I think, and at least it does a better job than the House of Commons in that regard. Minority voices such as the Greens and UKIP at least have their representation.

    The fact that the EP doesn’t properly choose the Commission is a major problem which – in other comments here, and many times on my own blog – I have addressed. It needs to be fixed. But again, abolishing an elected EP isn’t going to help in this regard.

    As for ‘real political debate’ – if you define that as two sides having a fight and the strongest prevailing then you might be right. Thing is that doesn’t have to be the way a Parliament works. There is real political debate in the EP, most of it happening in the committees, and the EP then voting in the plenary on EU law. On 1001 small things the EP has a major impact – from air quality to service industries, from working time to agriculture. The problem (which ties in with the Commission point earlier in this comment) is the EP can do very little at the moment to shape the overall direction of European integration. The EP is hence most definitely NOT useless.
    MEPs and their powers – I think you misread the EP. Yes, there are some leading figures in the EP that feel its powers that should be increased, and work to achieve that. And there are some useless ones too. But there are plenty that are focussed on their own small area of work, and are responsible and diligent within that. MEPs such as Åsa Westlund (Soc Dem, Sweden) or Marietje Schaake (D66, Netherlands) spring to mind in that regard. If the UK wanted more MEPs like those it should sort out its selection and election systems.

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  • french derek

    Jon, I have just found another reason for the importance of the EP: the Passenger Name Record (PNR).  The US wants an agreement whereby they can not only keep PNR’s for as long as they wish, but they can use it for whatever purposes they wish (Oh, and they also asked for more info than that). The PNR is meant to be a simple, one-off notification of passenger name, flight details and when they checked-in. The EP has thrown out the US proposal once – but they’ve come back again. I hope the EP throw it out again.

    Imho the EP is providing a valuable check on what would otherwise be a too-cosy relationship between EU and US officials.

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