In a debate organised last Thursday by the University of East Anglia’s Student Union, Geoffrey van Orden (Conservative Member of the European Parliament [MEP]) asked “If Nigel Farage thinks all laws are being made in Brussels why is he so desperate to get into Westminster?”. This can be understood as a comment on the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) “who really runs this country” billboard campaign, claiming that 75% of UK laws are now decided in Brussels. This figure has been debunked many times, as we detailed in a previous blog post. Indeed, debating with Nigel Farage last month, Nick Clegg put forward an alternative 10-15% figure from the House of Common’s Library. UKIP however continues to use the inflated 75% figure to stress that “Europe” or “Brussels” rule Britain.
Part of this “Europe” is the European Parliament, where UKIP is projected to take the lion’s share of the UK’s seats in the election on May 22. In the future European Parliament, UKIP alongside other like-minded Eurosceptic parties may thus acquire increasing voting power. But current UKIP MEPs have repeatedly refused to use such power. Why does a party that criticizes the EU’s influence on the UK refuse to use its power in the European Parliament to push for an EU that better serve its voters’ interests?
From UKIP’s perspective, taking such a stance makes sense. The party wants to repatriate power to Britain and refuses in the meantime any type of engagement with the EU institutions. According to UKIP MEP Paul Nuttal, this shows “contempt for Brussels”. Indeed, Mark Hughes (UKIP MEP candidate) argued last Thursday that the European Elections are a “charade”, a vote for a weak institution that yields next to no power: real change only happens in Westminster. Yet while UKIP’s stance is not incoherent it is arguably misguided, and very dangerous for the interests of the same British public it claims to represent. For while UKIP decries a supposed growing influence of the EU on the UK, its own (non) actions are harming British influence in European affairs.
This is because the European Parliament is not the EU’s weakest institution anymore. On most policies, it now co-legislates with the Council, which represents the member states. Indeed research on decision-making in the EU shows that changes in decision rules have considerably weakened the European Commission and reinforced the European Parliament. Examples of this rising power of the European Parliament – and thus European voters – include the removal of the Santer Commission in 1999 (something a “strong” Parliament like the House of Commons has not done since 1979)– and its veto power on who will be the next European Commission President, as well as on the Commission as a whole.
Crucially, the MEPs British citizens send to Brussel, alongside their government representatives in the Council, are key persons to voice British concerns and defend British voters’ interests in these debates. While the British government is represented within the Council, the political affiliation of British MEPs — elected at a different time than MPs, with a different electoral system — is very often distinct from whoever is ruling in London. Thus taken together the Council and the Parliament represent multiple British opinions — not just the UK government. However, with an expected growing number of British MEPs simply refusing to engage, the UK will systematically punch below its weight in the European Parliament — and this limitation of British influence in Brussels will be caused by its own representatives. In last week debates, Richard Howitt (Labour MEP) stressed that “UKIP’s rise is no laughing matter”. Indeed, a growing number of UKIP MEPs means less influence for Britain, create an EU that is less attuned to British interests, and therefore a growing discontent with the EU which may well result in a yet more growing number of UKIP MEPs in the next election. This may be very much be in UKIP’s interest, but is hardly in the interest of the British public who still have to live — and will, at least for a couple of years have to live — with EU rules on which they may find their influence waning if UKIP were to get a large portion of this year’s vote.
So when it comes to an important topic such as influence in/from/on the EU we should keep in mind that EU’s influence on the UK and UK’s influence in the EU are interlinked. By trying to diminish the former, UKIP voters will likely only succeed in diminishing the latter.