Opinion: Hannan Lifts Channel Fog – but there’s much more to be done

Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP in the South-east of England, has done a favour for everyone who cares about British public engagement in European politics.

I do not mean that in a back-handed way, and only a churlish person would deny that his response to Gordon Brown in Strasbourg last week was astoundingly well delivered political oratory. (You can watch it here on YouTube). I hope I have the chance to debate with Daniel Hannan on the hustings in our region.

The benefit of his speech was to draw attention to the European Parliament. The last mainstream news story I recall about the European Parliament was the December vote on the Working Time Directive. Editors concentrated on “rebellion” against Gordon Brown rather than the Directive’s effects, the arguments for and against it, or what prospect it had of coming into force in Britain. I cannot remember the last reported European Parliament news story before that, and I expect most readers will agree that 2-3 times per year is a fair estimate of how often main news outlets report on the Parliament.

Indifference and ignorance of European Parliamentary politics is an absurdity that will bemuse future citizens looking back at our present. You would not think from the paucity of serious news attention that 70% of legislation is decided at a federal European level.

Many party members’ opinions about our MEPs tend to rely on little knowledge, or even curiosity, about legislative records.

I try to my match my predecessor Chris Huhne in helping every local by-election in the South East Euro Region (email [email protected]) but that is not all being an MEP is about. Liberal Democrats should know that, for example, Graham Watson was behind the European Arrest Warrant so criminals cannot avoid justice, that Chris Davies is leading legislation for Carbon Capture technology, and that we have just passed a law to slash mobile phone roaming charges from this summer.

When you next hear about the Duke of Westminster and other agricultural oligarchs receiving £300,000 in CAP subsidies you should know that the Commission proposed a limit in these payments but Labour vetoed it in the Council of Ministers, and that the Conservative record includes opposing protection against homophobia in Europe.

A functioning democracy needs people to know what is being decided in their name. Here are just 5 ways – there are, of course, many more possibilities – we can alleviate this crisis of politics and identity:

1. The President of the Commission should appear in the chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords at least once per year and answer MPs’ questions, and other Commissioners should appear and answer questions from time to time.

2. The House of Commons should vote to mandate UK Ministers on how they vote at Council meetings, which should be held in public.

3. The media should adopt better standards – reporting actual legislative decisions should take precedence over reports on proposals and stories about European action should contain the views of both supporting and opposing MEPs;

4. The President of the Commission should be elected: either by the Parliament (as an executive’s leader often is in parliamentary democracies), or directly elected by the public.

5. More sports than golf should experiment with the spectacle of a European team: a Europe v South America football match would be the most exciting event of the century.

* Antony Hook is a Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament in South East England.

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2 Comments

  • David Morton 31st Mar '09 - 1:12am

    An excellent article. I notice you repeat the old chestnut that 70% of legislation is decided at a federal level. All the pro Europe people I have heard tend to rebut this figure as alarmist and suggest it was drawn from an atypical year when the single market was being implimented. So which is true and how are you defining “legislation” and 70% of what ? Number of Bills ? lengths of bills ? over all impact assessment ?

    Your 5 suggestions are interesting. While it is a bit of a cliche i really don’t think you can have european democracy without an european demos so i think direct election of the Commission president is out. If he/she is going to be elected by the parliament then perhaps best to argue for the whole hog ? That the commission comes from the parliament? But then you get into territory of how it is weighted politically or geographically. standards for news papers would be a nightmare to draft let alone enforce but a good aspiration. Single european sports teams would be a political nightmare. An EU team for the London Olympics ? we are still arguing over whether we can have a British Football team ! I’d add two suggestions to your list as 6 and 7.

    6. MEP’s could sit in a new Senate when it replaces the current House of Lords. As well as saving on 70 odd sets of allownaces it would link Europe to a new Federal Chamber for Britain. the new senate would have signifigant scrutiny powers over all things european.

    7. that we create a secretary of state for Europe. he/she would attend as far as possible ALL Council of Ministers regardless of the subject. they would probably have to be based in brussels full time but so what ? A single face accountable to the public via direct election to parliament would help communications and scrutiny.

    8. if 6 and 7 were both implimented you could experiment by drawing the new Sec of State from the pool of sitting MEP’s if you wanted.

  • I watched the hannan video since the tory blogs were so excited by it, and saw a fairly wordy pre-prepared piece of third rate oratory that most public schoolboys could have managed to deliver. my honest reaction was ‘is that it?’

    a society does get the politicians it deserves, but heaven help us if hannan really is the UK’s obama.

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