The upcoming European Parliament (EP) election campaigns for the election on May 22 have turned out to be more of a platform for campaigning in light of next year’s national elections than a platform for a fair and balanced discussion about the UK’s participation in the EU. However, the upcoming elections do carry weight and warrant attention especially because they can and will influence the UK and its citizens directly and indirectly. They also grant an opportunity for citizens to directly influence politics in Brussels, something that seems impossible if one was to believe the average British politician. The debate surrounding the EU and the EP has mainly carried negative undertones and attempted to point out how little influence the UK has on politics in Brussels. However, as we might have come to expect from politicians, they are not completely telling the truth or the entire story. Especially not when the topic is the amount of influence the UK or its citizens can actually exert in Europe through the EP.
To understand and appreciate the significance of these upcoming elections, one has to understand the role and functioning of the EP. Let us first address the basics by exploring how the ordinary European legislative process functions. British politicians (and other Eurosceptic politicians throughout Europe) have showed to be very adept at blaming the EU for imposing rules and laws that somewhat miraculously appear in Whitehall. However, what British politicians fail to tell their electorate is that they have had an influence on the creation of these very laws since their inception.
Laws in the EU are being proposed by the European Commission, which has the sole right to initiate this process. As dictatorial as this might sound, the European Commission actually does not have the manpower to come up with European-wide policies that it seeks to implement. Rather, it relies heavily on civil society (civilian interest groups), industry, other European institutions, and most importantly, Member States to put forth policy suggestions, after which it will take-up these initiatives and formulate a proposal that is sent to the EP for the first reading. The Members of the EP (MEPs) then examine the proposal and negotiate amendments or choose to adopt it. The EP then forwards the proposal to the European Council for their first reading (the group of the policy area’s respective national Ministers), who can choose to adopt and or amend the proposal.
If amended, it will be send back to the EP for the second reading, who can then choose to accept, reject or amend the proposal. If further amended by the EP, the Council can decide to accept these amendments or disapprove them in their second reading. In the case of disapproval a so-called Conciliatory Committee is convened which is comprised of MEPs and members of the Council who try to overcome their differences. Both parties can come to an agreement after which the amended proposal will be sent to both the Council and the EP for a third reading, or they can decide to reject the proposal altogether if no agreement is reached.
During the third reading, the voting procedures in both the EP and the Council allow for the acceptance or rejection of the proposal. Throughout this process, national political parties can communicate with their MEPs as well as MPs who can in turn complain to the responsible ministry if they desire to do so assuring additional national input.
Unfortunately, I realise that the last paragraphs are rather long, dull and/or seem complicated. Moreover, one has to acknowledge that these intricacies and the sheer length of the process lay a veil over European decision-making that might be hard to pierce for the average Member State citizen. However, this process does illustrate the rather important part that the EP and national governments play in the process. MEPs have a chance to amend and or reject the Commission’s proposals three times during the ordinary legislative process, and, added to that, they can directly negotiate with national ministers in the Conciliatory Committee. Furthermore, national ministers, and therefore national governments, have the same rights and influence.
Now the ordinary legislative process is explained, let’s explore how much influence the UK really has in this system by doing some simple maths. The EP will consist of 751 MEPs from 28 Member States after the next elections. Out of these 751 MEPs, 73 are from the UK, meaning that a little less than ten per cent of the seats in the EP are occupied by British representatives, which is a lot when considering there are 28 Member States in the EU. As we have explored before, these MEPs have a serious amount of influence, especially when you realise that British MEPs from British political parties have joined European political groups, which they also represent in the EP. Due to these European party alliances, British MEPs, whether they are Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, or UKIP, can pack more of a punch when it comes to amending or rejecting EU legislative proposals.
So why has Brussels increasingly become a scapegoat in British politics, and why is Europe being bashed in campaigning for the EP elections? The European project is an endeavour that has never been heavily supported in the UK and the reasons for that might warrant another series of articles. The fact is that nowadays, the complexities of the EU offer an easy target for national politicians if they act incompetently and need someone/something to blame.
If a referendum is eventually issued in the UK regarding EU membership, and it decides to leave, then so be it. However, this does not diminish the importance of the EP elections as they still offer European citizens a chance to directly elect their representatives in the EP who can immediately watch out for you in Brussels.
Therefore, despite all the criticism that national politicians might have of the EU and its functioning, these elections provide an opportunity to have your voice heard through the influence of the EP as the ordinary legislative process so easily shows. When politicians (and other Eurosceptics) vehemently deny that they have any national influence on European politics, I hope this article has shown that they are clearly lying. Maybe this will finally allow for these politicians to be held accountable for their own inadequacy instead of getting away with blaming the EU.