Friday, 24 February 2012

Part-time Parliament a loopy idea

This week Jack Straw proposed abolition of the European Parliament. Richard Howitt MEP, Chair of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) and speaker at this weekend's 'Social Europe: Worth Fighting For?' conference gives his response.

Oh Jack. You are and have been a great servant of the party and I have always forgiven that the European Union isn't your favourite dish. But you only needed to ask some of the politicians in your own generation to know that returning to a European Assembly of national politicians replacing the directly elected Parliament would be completely loopy.

It was tried in the 1970s and the logistics of MPs undertaking their parliamentary duties at home, travelling and trying to engage in joint work with counterparts from eight other countries proved unworkable. It was why direct elections were first agreed for 1979.

The politicians of that era I have talked to, speak with affection about the bars and nightspots of Strasbourg, but not of any political achievements in going there.

And that was before the European Parliament had full legislative powers, now incorporating 27 countries, and meeting 44 weeks a year, (far more than Westminster). Unlike the Commons division lobby, the European Parliament votes on 800 policy proposals and 10,000 amendments in each parliamentary year.

If the aim is to build trust in European institutions, a part-time Parliament is the last thing we need.

Indeed the impact of abolishing Europe's directly-elected Parliament would be to reduce scrutiny of legislation and of EU spending, lessen visibility and remove the very people the Eurosceptic press can never justifiably brand as "Eurocrats." In British public opinion, it would have the very opposite impact to the one you propose.

Parliamentary democracy is a fine and noble thing. It builds public support by bringing political debate and decision-making in to the open, and by giving citizens the chance to be the ultimate decision-makers through the electoral process. This is the case throughout the world and has to apply to Europe.

But there is a narrow Labour Party point to all this too.

Labour Euro MPs constantly strive to serve our constituents effectively and we must always be prepared to be self-critical on how we can do better.

But Labour in Government - the government in which you proudly served - too often failed to put the case for Europe, and fell in to the trap of claiming credit for European achievements for itself and blaming Europe for the things that go wrong.

But the days of the party treating its MEPs as the embarrassing aunt are long-gone.

The new generation of Labour politicians from Ed Miliband to Douglas Alexander, Emma Reynolds to our own leader Glenis Willmott, all appreciate that Labour has to do better on Europe as on other issues than limiting solutions to those from within the Westminster bubble.

Jack, it was a privilege to serve in your team as Labour's Foreign Affairs Spokesperson in Europe, when you were an outstanding Foreign Secretary.

But I recognise that perhaps one job that is beyond me is to be able to change your own views on Europe.

Richard Howitt MEP is Chair of the European Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour Member of the European Parliament for the East of England.

E-mail: Twitter: @richardhowitt

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