March 1 2015 Latest news:
Sunday, April 13, 2014
As the countdown begins, we ask why is Europe so important?
There’s a classic scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when John Cleese, portraying the leader of the hapless People’s Front of Judea, poses what he believes to be a hypothetic question to his followers.
“Just what,” he says, “have the Romans ever done for us?”
It sparks one of the great exchanges, as the rebels preparing to overthrow their ‘Roman oppressors’, start realising that in fact, they brought rather alot.
All of which leaves a rather exasperated Cleese to exclaim: “All right, all right, but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?”. “Peace,” someone yells. “Oh shut up,” is the response.
And so it proves with the European Union.
We’ve a lot to thank it for; 28 days’ paid holiday a year, clean water on our beaches, access to healthcare when we travel to the continent, all the multi-billion pound economic benefits of being part of the world’s largest single market and plenty more besides.
And it has a lot to thank us for, too. The UK’s annual contribution to the EU was 11.3 billion euros in 2012 - that’s the equivalent of some £9.3bn.
Little wonder then some see it as a progressive body which tangibly improves the quality of life in Britain while others see it as a drain on the country’s resources, overriding our own politicians. Either way, it’s something which it’s hard not to have a view on.
So on May 22, when Kent goes to the polls to choose its MEPs for the next five years, you would expect everyone to turn out and have their say. Right?
Wrong. At the last elections in 2009, just 34.7 per cent of UK voters put their cross in the box, compared with an EU average of 43 per cent.
For an issue so many feel strongly about, apathy seems strange.
“I don’t think we in the UK are properly engaged with the European issue,” says Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder, who represents the south east.
“People are scared about Europe because they don’t really understand how it works. So we try to avoid it, and if it doesn’t coincide with another election, people leave it.
“But that’s a bit like sticking your head in the sand. MEPs are unseen a lot of the time but we are speaking up for the UK.
“The things that Europe deals with are things that benefit all of us; environmental protection, free trade across borders and protection if you are going to live elsewhere in the EU, for example making sure your will is valid if you move abroad.”
The European Parliament will have 751 members after the May elections and represents the second largest democratic electorate in the world after the Parliament of India. A total of 375 million people were eligible to vote in 2009.
It passes legislation that affects all 28 member states, who are required to comply with its decisions – in some cases overriding national laws.
But its legislation tends to concern transnational issues such as the environment, human rights, international trade and workers’ rights, with national matters like taxation, healthcare and education left to individual nations.
Estimates of what proportion of legislation in Britain now comes from Europe vary between 11 per cent and 75 per cent; normally depending on who is making the argument. It will surprise few that Ukip trumpets the higher figure.
So who you elect is significant. Yet it reamins confusing to uninitiated too, with a number of MEPs, for example, representing the south east.
Voters in Britain elect MEPs to represent them in the European Parliament, just as they choose MPs for the national parliament and councillors for local government. For the European elections, the UK is divided into 12 electoral regions, each of which elects several MEPs.
Kent is part of the south east region, which has ten MEPs. They cover a vast constituency encompassing Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight: a population of 8.6 million people.
The UK will elect 73 MEPs in May, using proportional representation, which means that the number of seats a party gets is directly proportional to the number of votes cast for it.
Instead of the first-past-the-post system used in the UK’s national elections, where a vote for anyone other than the winning candidate in each constituency won’t affect the makeup of Parliament, this means that every vote counts. With no need for tactical voting, people can choose the party they truly support.
And if they don’t, says Mrs Bearder, they are denying themselves a voice.
“I would like the public to get themselves informed about what really happens and how important Europe is to us – and how important we are in Europe. It’s a two-way street,” she said.
“Democracy is terribly vulnerable. If you ignore it, someone else will steal it from you. It’s the same as anything. You have to vote, or someone else will make the decisions for you.”
LIFE AS AN MEP...
CATHERINE BEARDER (Lib Dem)
“My dad always said to me; don’t get angry, get active. That’s why I’m in politics,” says MEP Catherine Bearder.
And no one can deny that the Liberal Democrat MEP is active. Her week starts with a journey from her home in Oxford to Brussels, where she stays until Thursday afternoon or evening.
“The week in Brussels is varied. We spend some weeks in committees, discussing reports in detail and doing nitty-gritty amendments,” Mrs Bearder said.
“Then we have weeks which we spend in our political groups, reporting from our committees and discussing how we will vote and what line we will take. We might have a mandate from our group to do some more negotiating.
“Once a month we go to Strasbourg, where we vote on all the committee reports. Other time is spent meeting with non-government organisations (NGOs), lobby groups and people who want to talk to me about special issues.
“There is no such thing as a typical week. Just when you think life is settling down, it changes.”
Fridays and Saturdays are spent doing constituency work and Sundays are spent “falling asleep a lot”.
“In the constituency, I spend my time going to meet businesses, local Lib Dems, and people who have contacted me; talking to schools, women’s organisations and other groups; and meeting experts on issues like bee conservation,” Mrs Bearder said.
“MEPs don’t get anything like the casework that MPs get, although the issues that we deal with are much bigger and we are more likely to get businesses coming to us.”
Ukip says 75 per cent of our laws are made in Brussels but Mrs Bearder says this figure is “bonkers”.
“I would say between 11 and 20 per cent of our laws are made in Europe. Most of the laws for the UK are made by the UK here in Westminster,” she added.
“Some of the laws we have no choice over, but other laws and directives get UK adapted. For example, we’re told to recycle 70 per cent of all our waste to stop landfill, but how it’s then recycled and what to recycle is decided by Westminster.
“And if they don’t like a directive, they send it back to the MEPs and the council. Since the Lisbon Treaty, Westminster has a duty to scrutinise anything that we bring out.
“There are a lot of myths in newspapers, from bendy bananas to how we are being swamped by immigrants. Most of them are scare stories put about by the opponents of the EU.”
And she said that far from being criticised for spending time in Brussels, MEPs should be praised because they were doing their job of representing the UK.
“We do a lot of work standing up for the UK, so it’s absolutely vital that we are sitting there as the UK’s voice,” Mrs Bearder added.
“The UK has the third largest population in the EU and therefore the third largest number of MEPs – we have a huge influence. But we can only use that by turning up. If you are not there, someone else is going to make the rules for you.
“When some people think of Europe they think it’s something coming at them, but it’s something we are playing a full role in.”
She said she hoped turnout would be higher at these elections than in 2009.
“We have had this debate about in or out and I think the issues are much clearer. I think people are more interested now in what Europe is doing,” Mrs Bearder said.
“Europe is enormously important for the UK, especially as we are recovering from the huge recession that has hit most of the western world.
“It’s vital that people engage with this, know why they are voting and turn out and vote.”
KEITH TAYLOR (Green)
“A typical week has about eight days in it,” Keith Taylor says wryly of his jam-packed schedule as Green MEP for the south east.
He spends four days a week at the European Parliament in either Brussels or Strasbourg, at least one day a week campaigning in the constituency, and as much of his weekends as he can at his home in Brighton, where his family live.
The grandfather of three began his political career in 1999 when he was elected to Brighton and Hove Council, and has been an MEP since 2009.
“When I started out as a councillor in Brighton I thought that was busy,” he laughs.
“Now I am active across a whole range of issues which involve trying to secure a better quality of life for the people I represent.
“Our priority is putting people and the planet at the centre of policy, not business. I want a Europe which is a force for the common good and free of inequalities, whatever your race or religion.
“The challenge is enormous and the potential for good is enormous.”
These issues include air pollution – he has just released a report on the effects of heavy traffic near schools on Kent’s children – fracking and the effects of the government’s austerity measures, such as changes to benefits and the bedroom tax, on the community.
“We have to recognise the opportunities that Europe offers for doing things that are really worthwhile. There’s so much that we can do,” Mr Taylor said.
“Eighty per cent of environmental legislation comes from Europe, as well as social things like the Working Time Directive and the right to belong to a trade union, and new laws to cap bankers’ bonuses.
“The Working Time Directive was about equality. A view was taken that the working people of Europe should be protected from exploitation by their employer, so it offers protection to the employee from being overworked.
“We wouldn’t have clean beaches if it wasn’t for Europe. We wouldn’t be able to insist on improvements for air quality and we would be soaked in genetically modified food.
“Between 10,000 and 15,000 people a year write in. I have constituency correspondents whose job it is to write all the replies,” Mr Taylor explained.
“I have a really good team of people helping me do all the work in London and Brussels, as well staff in parts of the region.
“Some people complain; they think the Greens are a bit radical. But you have only got one life and there is no point doing things the way they have always been done. If you believe you can’t make a difference, you run out of steam.”
So what does he think needs to be done to improve the chronically low turnout at elections?
“I think people need to understand what Europe does and how we can benefit from our membership,” Mr Taylor said.
“Other people say we are better off out of Europe, but they don’t say what would happen to our membership of the single market, or talk about the people who would not want to involve the UK.
“Those people are harking back to halcyon days when Britain ruled the waves, but those days never existed. They are conning people into thinking that they have a solution, but they haven’t.
“I support calls for a referendum, but we want to reform Europe and make it better.”
Instead, Mr Taylor said, people should think about all the positives the European Union can and does bring.
“I am a simple chap. I became a politician because I wanted to look out for what’s best for people,” he said.
“I am doing this because I believe passionately in equality and all the things that the Greens believe in; care for the environment and making sure resources are still there for our children.
“We have 58 MEPs across Europe and are the fourth largest group in the Parliament, so what we say makes a difference. And because of proportional representation, every single vote does count.
“I want to encourage people to vote for a Europe for the common good. Don’t just hope for a better future, vote for a better future.”
NIGEL FARAGE (Ukip)
“I am the most untypical MEP you could ever talk to,” Nigel Farage admits.
He’s not wrong. As leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), which opposes Britain’s membership of the EU, Mr Farage’s own aim is to put himself out of business.
“I think it’s a delicious irony,” he said.
“I have a completely different objective from other MEPs. They all believe in Britain’s membership of the EU and they see their job as being there to defend British interests within the integration process. I don’t want to reform Europe. My job is for there to be no MEPs.”
A day off is a rarity for the controversial Ukip frontman from Westerham, who estimates that he puts in 100 hours a week.
“It is mega,” he admits.
“I left here at 5.30am yesterday and got back at 1am. The phone started at 6.15am this morning. There is no such thing as a typical week.
“But do you know what? I love it. Because I am doing this out of conviction and passion.”
Figures vary as to what proportion of our laws are now made in Europe but Mr Farage says it is 75 per cent.
“If you speak to anyone in Kent, anyone who runs a business or owns a shop, when it comes to employment legislation, health and safety at work and environmental law it is almost irrelevant who is in Westminster,” he said.
“But the European Union does nothing that we couldn’t do. I travel extensively around Europe and engage in political debate to try to push my alternative version; a Europe that is about trade and cooperation, but not politics.”
Most of his time is spent dealing with constituency matters, including attending public meetings and helping people with their individual problems, as well as talking to the media.
“I do go to Brussels or Strasbourg, and yes, I will go along and vote for things to make the situation slightly less bad, but my priority is the work I do in the constituency,” Mr Farage said.
“Overseas property problems are a very common issue. People buy a plot of land in Spain and then find a developer is going to build a motorway through it and they have no rights. In those instances I can write letters, lobby the commissioner and submit written questions.
“Another issue is people being imprisoned in parts of Europe where prison standards are no better than in Third World countries - we are trying to get that changed.
“Spending five days a week in Brussels and signing in for a daily allowance is not what I’m about.”
So what, in his experience, are the biggest issues for people in Kent?
“Open-door immigration is number one. It’s number one, number two, number three, number four and number five,” Mr Farage said.
“It affects primary school places, waiting times in A&E, young people getting jobs, wages falling over the last ten years, and has led to the biggest change in communities that we have ever seen in this country.
“We have an open door to 485 million people, and Kent is and always will be the frontline.”
He believes the low turnout at elections is partly down to opposition to the EU, and people’s unwillingness to engage with an institution they do not support.
“It’s been a case of wilful abstension,” Mr Farage said.
“People haven’t seen the elections as being very relevant. They have never heard of their MEPs, probably because they spend most of their lives in Brussels.
“But if people feel that way they have now got a party that represents them. So if you think running our own country and controlling our own borders matters then get involved. Don’t give up; don’t do nothing.
“If it wasn’t for UKIP we wouldn’t even be talking about a referendum. This is the chance to give the establishment a shock.”
FULL LIST OF OUR MEPs FOR THE SOUTH EAST...AND HOW TO CONTACT THEM
Daniel Hannan (Conservative)
Lives: Hassocks, West Sussex
Nigel Farage (Ukip)
Lives: Downe, Kent
Richard Ashworth (Conservative)
Lives: Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Sharon Bowles (Lib Dem)
Lives: Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire
Keith Taylor (Greens)
Lives: Brighton, West Sussex
Nirj Deva (Conservative)
Lives: Hillingdon, Middlesex
Marta Andreasen (Conservative)
Lives: Woking, Surrey
James Elles (Conservative)
Lives: Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire
Peter Skinner (Labour)
Lives: Rochester, Kent
Catherine Bearder (Lib Dem)
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