What do the following have in common? Enrique Barón Crespo, Egon A. Klepsch, Klaus Hansch, José Maria Gil-Robles, Nicole Fontaine, Pat Cox, Josep Borrell Fontelles, Hans-Gert Pöttering, Jerzy Buzek and Marin Schulz. They are the last ten Presidents of the European Parliament. The European Parliament is the only multinational parliamentary assembly in the world, and the only EU institution directly elected by Europe’s citizens. It represents approximately 500 million people in the EU’s 27 Member States.
On 9th May 1950, just a few weeks before I was born, Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister, proposed a coal and steel union between France and Germany, a plan based on the ideas of Jean Monnet. The date of Schuman’s speech has since then been celebrated annually as ‘Europe Day’. Each year, on this day the chambers of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels are open to the general public. Every year about 40,000 people take advantage of the occasion to visit Parliament and learn about its activities. This week I was one of them.
I was invited by one of my MEPs, Geoffrey Van Orden, to join a small group visiting the Parliament in Brussels. Together with my wife we met Geoffrey and some of his colleagues, had a brief tour of the building and were able to attend part of a debate. The subject of the debate could have been anything but it was actually a subject that I did find interesting: Roaming on public mobile communications networks within the union. Regulations were to be voted on the following day that would bring roaming charges down for mobile phone users within the European Union.
Debates in the European Parliament are not very like those in the House of Commons. The Members sit in political groups- they are not organised by nationality, but by political affiliation. A political group comprises Members elected in at least one quarter of the EU Member States and has a minimum of 25 Members. There are currently seven political groups in the European Parliament. Members who do not belong to any of the groups are known as ‘non-attached Members’. Preparatory work for the Parliament’s plenary sittings takes place in the Parliament’s 20 committees, which cover everything from women’s rights to health and consumer protection. A committee consists of 24 to 76 MEPs. Horse trading takes place over who will speak in the plenary debates and for how long. Times are allocated for each debate and the President, or one of his 14 Vice-Presidents, tries to keep speakers to a strict time table assisted by flashing lights and a gavel. Speakers are called and reminded of their time allocation. The longest speech we heard was less than three minutes.
It was perhaps an omen that the first speaker went by the unfortunate name of Goebbels. Apparently on one occasion he was introduced as Goering. His words were simultaneously translated into the 23 official languages of the EU. There were only about 30 members in the Chamber out of the 754 current MEPs. There were a few more in the gallery and of course a number of hangers-on on the podium, presumably there to ensure that the many rules were enforced. Most of the speakers read from a prepared script, probably a useful discipline when your time could be limited to one minute, but it lacked spontaneity, or any of the cut and thrust of proper debate. Several speakers came into the chamber just before they were called and left immediately afterwards. One cannot deny that in a multilingual chamber every elected Member must have the right to speak in his own language but the result is sterile.
All of this activity is supported by 5,600 officials not counting the MEPs' own staff which probably takes the total up to more than 8000. Once a month the whole show decamps from Brussels to Strasbourg for no purpose it would seem other than to help the economy in that corner of France. Since it will take an unanimous decision of all the Member States to stop this waste it will continue as France shows no sign of giving in to reason. The overall budget for the Parliament is difficult to ascertain but is approximately €1.5 billion pa.
The EU as a whole, of course, costs very much more: some €864 billion over the financial framework 2007-13 (rounded figures from the Interinstitutional Agreement of 17 May, 2006; 2004 prices.) We can safely assume that this budget will have been comfortably exceeded by next year and we can also safely assume that it will not be properly audited with properly approved accounts as that has not happened in many years. But it is only fair to put this in perspective compared with Member States. The EU budget was around € 140 billion in 2011, compared to the sum of national budgets of all 27 EU Member states, which amount to more than € 6,300 billion. In other words, total government expenditure by the 27 Member States is almost 50 times bigger than the EU budget! About 6% of the total budget goes on administration and the EU budget is always in balance. It has no debt although this may change as the role of the European Central Bank will probably have to change.
Geoffrey Van Orden describes himself as a Euro Sceptic. That does not mean he wants Britain to leave the EU, rather he wants us to stay in it and reform it. He argues cogently that there are therefore three positions covering the spectrum of popular opinion. There is a minority that wants Britain to get out. There is another minority that wants Britain to stay in and sees the EU as basically on a good track. Then there is what in his judgement is by far the largest group, those like himself who want Britain to stay in but want substantial change. This would involve considerable reductions in cost, considerable reductions in regulation and interference in domestic affairs but good progress in such areas as the single market. A fellow MEP, Vicky Ford shares this view and gives the example of regulation of drugs where counterfeit drugs are a growing criminal menace and EU legislation seeking to deal with that threat has been passed.
I would probably want to be in that majority who would stay in for practical reasons but seek to control the cost, wind back the regulations and regain control of some of the important levers of state. But I am not sure if that position is actually tenable. Any country seeking membership of the European Union must conform to the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, named after the city where, in 1993, the Heads of State or Government established the conditions for accession (those conditions have since been tightened).
Specifically, to become a member of the EU an applicant country must meet the following criteria:
· political stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
· economic existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union;
· acceptance of the acqis communitaire[i]: ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union. (my emphasis.)
Just for the record the Lisbon treaty now provides the possibility for a Member State to withdraw from the EU if it so wishes. The arrangements for withdrawal will need to be determined in an agreement between the Member States’ governments, which will require Parliament’s prior approval. The country involved will still be able to rejoin the EU, providing it goes through the accession procedure once again.
Geoffrey makes another good point over the vexed question of a referendum. If he is right that there are these three distinct points of view, in, out or in but with major reforms then a straight referendum in or out would not be appropriate and might lead us to a worse place. Norway conducted such a referendum and the people decided to stay out. However, Norway wanted some of the benefits of access to the single market and so has had to agree to subject itself to the same laws even without direct representation. It also contributes to the EU coffers and per capita its contribution is equivalent to the UK. Legislation is going through Parliament governing the health and safety of workers on offshore oil rigs. Norway has more off shore oil than the whole of the EU put together but these laws will apply equally to Norway even though it has no MEPs in the European Parliament.
I came away from this Tower of Babel impressed with the work of our MEPs but concerned that their principal efforts go into delaying tactics, filing literally hundreds of amendments hoping to refine away the worst of the legislation. But I also came away seeing that the EU is in crisis. That the project has stalled as the insanity of monetary union without political or fiscal union is causing chaos throughout the so-called olive states of the south. It may be that reform does come as a result. Or it may be that those who are dedicated to the project, motivated by their fears of wars and other demons in their collective histories, use this crisis to drive even further on the path to which they are committed: political, economic and monetary union.
[i]Acquis communitaire: this is a French term covering, essentially, the rights and obligations that all EU countries share. The acquis includes all the EU’s treaties and laws, declarations and resolutions, international agreements on EU affairs and the judgements given by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Candidate countries have to accept the acquis before they can join the EU, and make EU law part of their own national law.