Friday, 15 May 2009

Euro-elections and MPs' expenses

We are now just a couple of weeks away from the elections to the European Parliament and little is being heard about it above the noise of the expenses scandal. I have tried casting my mind back to the last lot of Euro elections to see whether I can remember there being much excitement then, sadly, memory is there none. Why, I wonder, can't I remember? I remember general election campaigns and even some aspects of local election campaigns, but nothing about Euro elections.

I think it's probably a consequence of what Euro elections are. Voting for an MP or local councillor means voting for someone with a direct part to play in the implementation of policy and the making of law (Acts of Parliament in the case of an MP and by-laws in the case of a councillor). The number of MPs/councillors elected for each party determines the form of the national or local government that rules over us. For all the deficiencies and quirks in the first-part-the-post constituency system and, indeed, in the amount of power political parties have over elected representatives, at least the outcome of the election decides who governs and sets the strength of their nominal majority in the chamber. Returning an MEP to Brussels has no discernible effect on policy or on the structure, form or political balance of the ruling EU elite.

So what can we vote for in the Euro elections? What issues are there? It seems to me there is really only one issue and our votes are just a glorified opinion poll on that issue - do we want to stay in or do we want to get out? The policy of all three main parties is to stay in the EU. They don't campaign by promising they will actually achieve anything if elected because they know they can't; they angle for support because votes in any election strengthen their overall domestic position.

An interesting side-issue arising from the MPs' expenses fiasco is that it shows how public opinion can bring about change regardless of the voting strength of the parties in the House of Commons. Fiddles of a few hundred pounds here and there have raised a stink just as much as profiteering by tens of thousands on sale of a house paid for by the taxpayer. Neither the government nor the opposition parties can ignore the fuss because it is engulfing the whole country, there is simply no buffer between them and us, no insulation to allow them to carry on as they wish. By contrast far greater corruption goes on within the EU institutions. MEPs can and do draw many thousands in perks, allowances and so-called expenses. Commissioners receive substantial salaries and simply enormous fringe-benefits including pensions so sweet they would make real people cry. When exposed to howls of derision among the little people over the failure of the EU's accounts to pass audit and the lack of controls over MEPs troughing, nothing changes. Nothing changes because change can only come from the self-appointed EU elite who are not subject to any direct pressure from the serfs. They serve their time, pick up their massive salaries and are replaced by their friends. Neither the ballot box nor public opinion has any influence at all.

The row over MPs' expenses shows a strength of our democratic system. When something is sufficiently repugnant to normal standards of fair play there are avenues through which it can be addressed. Those avenues are not restricted to the ballot box. Genuine disquiet can cause a major change in Parliamentary procedures or in government policy whatever the result of the most recent general election. The effect of public opinion does not operate outside the democratic system, it is part of it. Indeed it is more accurate to say that elections are just one way in which public opinion influences the way we are governed.

Public opinion is irrelevant to the workings of the EU institutions. It is irrelevant because there is no mechanism for it to operate on those workings and, more significantly, it is irrelevant because the institutions exist not by the will of the people but by the will of a self-perpetuating political elite. It is an elite that has devised a system to give it powers wholly removed from the democratic process. If we ever want an example of the importance of retaining a direct link between the will of the little people and the activities of a ruling elite, the expenses row is it. Manipulation of expenses rules to the personal benefit of MPs existed because it could. The corrupt ones, supported at every turn by the hopelessly incompetent trougher-in-chief known as the Speaker, fought tooth and nail to keep their practices secret but eventually the truth came out and now they have to face the consequences. For many of them those consequences will be dire, so be it, that's the price you pay for cheating. Yet that price can only be exacted for so long as there are both means of exposing corrupt practices and the will to combat those practices. The latter is wholly lacking in the EU institutions.

In or out? That's an easy question for me. Contrived arguments about the EU having kept the peace in Europe can be stuck where the attendance allowance doesn't shine, not only are they factually unsustainable but they are also now irrelevant. Dissolve the whole EU today and there won't be war or any threat of war between France and Germany - forget Italy, Spain and the rest, the only fear of serious western European war in the last century has involved those two countries. Contrived arguments that a free market, or anything approaching a free market, between European nations requires centralised political control are patently absurd. Both the EU and the USA have defined free-trade agreements with numerous countries without any need for the blending of governments. Arguments about how much money membership of the EU costs the UK and how much departure from the EU would harm our economy are neither here nor there. Figures given by protagonists on both sides are always selective, hypothetical and/or exaggerated. If we gain, great. If we lose, we lose.

To me it is a matter of self-determination. Only self-determination by nations states can create the circumstances necessary for stable society (I have opined on this point before). Only a direct link between the will of the little people and the power of the ruling class can keep political misbehaviour and corruption to the minimum. That link is impossible on any scale larger than the nation state and, let's be frank, it's difficult enough even in a small country like the UK. Leaving aside any other aspect of the in-out debate, this one is utterly persuasive for me.

1 comment:

Dan said...

A qualified "right on"!

I would however respectfully suggest that maybe you're conflating three distinct issues, which are:

1. Is it, in principle, a good idea to have a degree of political and economic cooperation within Europe?

2. If so, should that political and economic cooperation remain at treaty level, or should it be embodied in some kind of institution?

3. Are the institutions of the EU, as they are in fact constituted and run, actually to our benefit?

While there would be disagreement as to degree and scope, most people would accept that the answer to question 1 is "yes". Question 2 is more debatable; my answer would be a qualified "yes" provided such an institution existed purely as a convenience to member States and provided it was capable of being called to account in some democratically legitimate manner. It is question 3 that, for me, is the big fat "No".

Would it perhaps therefore be more in our interests to seek to negotiate an arrangement similar to Switzerland, whereby they have a strong relationship with the EU without actual full-blown membership?