I feel I’m pretty well-qualified to write about so-called debates in the European Parliament. After all, I’ve spoken in more of them since being elected than any other British MEP and I’m currently 3rd out of the 750 in the Parliament. (Another UKIP stereotype goes out of the window!)
The word ‘debate’, though, is stretching the point a little bit. The whole Parliament is actually only convened for 5 days a month: 4 in Strasbourg and 1 in Brussels. Of the four Strasbourg days, the Monday doesn’t start until 5pm and the Thursday session is usually over by midday. In Brussels, we don’t start until 3pm. When you consider that we often spend 2 hours in a day voting, the Parliament is effectively only ‘sitting’ on average for less than 3 days a month.
Compare that with a real Parliament, our Parliament at Westminster which last year sat for 142 days in the year. There was an outcry: how could MPs ‘only’ turn up to Westminster for 142 days? Now, that’s not to say that members of the European Parliament don’t turn up at other times: there’s Committee work for example. But if we’re effectively allocating just 3 days a month to ‘debate’ important issues, there’s no wonder that strange things start to happen!
Last Monday in Strasbourg, they scheduled eight so-called ‘debates’. I use the term very loosely. The rapporteur (the member of the European Parliament who wrote the report) was allowed to speak for around 4 minutes to present their documents, which are often anything between 20 and 50 pages long. For five minutes, MEPs are allowed to ‘debate’ them: five MEPs are allowed to speak for 60 seconds each, before the Commission has a couple of minutes to wrap up. That’s all the ‘debate’ that’s allowed, and the reports are then scheduled, together with various amendments, for a vote on the Tuesday. On average, roughly 10 of the 750 MEPs (I’m normally one of the ten) turn up to these debates. How could anyone possibly be convinced by such a debate? How could we possibly give the reports proper scrutiny? Fortunately for me, I speed-read. I sometimes wonder whether I’m the only MEP in the chamber who’s actually read all of the reports. And yet, this is supposed to be democracy in action.
Then we have the ‘grandstanding’ debates, as I like to call them. The Commission and Council will present on a particular issue, and it’s advertised as “one round of political group speakers only”. This happens on some high-profile issues. MEPs pack the chamber, whilst each Group leader or other delegated representative gets a chance to speak for between 3 and 5 minutes. Nigel Farage does this job very well; he’s very well-suited to this arena. No-one else gets the chance to speak. It’s not in any meaningful sense a debate; it’s just a platform for 9 short speeches. David Cameron is grilled vigorously once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster; no-one faces such a grilling in Brussels or Strasbourg. But if there’s no true scrutiny, then the chamber’s output suffers. Without scrutiny or interaction, it’s not in any meaningful sense a debate.
There are oral explanations of vote. These allow MEPs to spend 60 seconds explaining why they voted a particular way. It’s all after the fact, so no-one’s mind can be changed. Once again, it isn’t debate.
Then there are the ‘vanity’ one-minute speeches. Any MEP can apply for a 60-second speech on ‘matters of political importance’. It’s 60 seconds to talk about whatever you feel like discussing, to promote a cause that you believe in. The Parliament generally takes around 60 of these each month, and they have zero actual meaning. On the other hand, they can tell a special interest group that they ‘raised the issue in Parliament’. Certainly they did raise the issue, but it’s misleading to suggest that it’s going to make the slightest bit of difference. Some of the better MEPs will use their one-minute speeches to relate to matters in their constituency, contact the press, and use them to raise public awareness of an important issue. But again, it’s not really debate in any sense of the word.
Finally, there are a few ‘debates’ which come a little closer to the meaning of the word. After the Commission, Council and other interested parties have spoken, backbench MEPs are given their chance. Timings are allocated proportionally on a group basis. Individual speakers are usually granted between 60 and 120 seconds to speak. They’re always in a rush and there’s never enough speaking time to go around, so it tends to revert back to the committees: if the EU budget is under discussion then I’m likely to get some speaking time as a member of the Budget Committee. In these kinds of debates, there’s the tiniest sliver of Parliamentary scrutiny. An MEP may hold up a blue card, indicating a desire to question a speaker. If the blue card is accepted, then they can ask a 30-second question and get a 30-second response.
The problem is, that this ‘blue card’ system is incredibly limited. It’s the unelected Commission that drafts the laws, but the rules are quite clear: ‘you can’t blue-card the Commission’. 30 seconds isn’t enough to develop a point in itself. But that’s not the worst of it. Often the blue card system itself is suspended, especially when important issues are being debated. When Commission President Juncker addressed the Parliament last Wednesday, we had a ‘debate’ on his ‘State of the Union’ speech and the current refugee crisis. Juncker’s speech was scheduled for 30 minutes; I believe it lasted 90. Then we had the ’round of political group speakers’ above, and the pro-EU groups were allowed to massively overrun their speaking time. Eventually, the ‘debate’ started. They did not allow even one question before suspending blue cards. The Parliament was running late, and debate would make it run even later. With even the tiniest amount of actual debate cancelled on such an issue, I walked out of the chamber in protest.
My North East Labour colleague (or perhaps, opponent?) Jude Kirton-Darling saw the opportunity for a quick bit of mischief making, and tweeted: “Not one UKIP MEP in chamber for debate on #refugeecrisis”. I’d left in protest at the lack of debate, then was criticised for not remaining in the sham-discussion that resulted. At the time when she tweeted, the UKIP MEPs were actually in a voting meeting – but that’s actually beside the point. The problem is, that when considering events in the chamber, my record speaks for itself.
I don’t actually write this to criticise Jude or Paul, the Labour North East MEPs. They work hard in their own way. I might disagree with them on many things, and indeed the nature of the role of a UKIP MEP is different from that of a Labour MEP. My role is to be the voice of opposition, the person who speaks out when the EU proposes something bad, to try to negate the worst excesses of the EU and to report back to my constituents on what’s going on. I’m heavily involved with putting on events like this one, bringing politics back to the people.
As it happens I did actually speak out in the chamber on the refugee crisis – but as I’ve explained above, sadly the system is designed to minimise the chance of actually persuading anyone of anything.
The whole system is designed to make MEPs feel like they’re powerful, whilst leaving us with very little power indeed. Parliamentary staff treat MEPs with cringeworthy levels of deference. Millions are wasted each year on unnecessary luxuries; I refuse to attend the daily free champagne receptions for MEPs in Brussels for example. There are echoes of medieval feudalism in the way that MEPs are treated out there; you either go into it with eyes wide open and see it for what it is (warts and all), or you end up going native – defending the indefensible to the hilt. Sadly, too many MEPs do the latter and fail to spot that the Emperor has no clothes.
How many MEPs, I wonder, have even failed to spot what is staring us in the face on a daily basis: that there is no such thing as debate in the European Parliament?
This column was originally published on my Huffington Post blog and can be viewed here.