Robyn Vinter 11th April 2019
There’s no real system of accountability in the European Parliament for MEPs, which means if they don’t want to turn up, they simply don’t — and the unfortunate truth is there’s nothing you can really do about it.
The vast majority of British MEPs are pro-EU, which, to be fair, is the position that you’d expect from someone who has stood for election as a European politician. Most of these people work extremely hard for their constituents.
But a handful of MEPs, including high profile people like former-Ukip leader Nigel Farage, have been protesting Britain’s membership of the EU by not participating in the European Parliament. This means turning up to only 50% of the plenary, which is a large monthly forum in Strasbourg, and not taking on committee work, which most MEPs say takes up the majority of their time.
“They don’t do any work in the committees at all,” says Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. “They turn up in Strasbourg because if they didn’t they’d get half their salary deducted.”
Jude Kirton-Darling, a Labour MEP agrees. She says: “There are clearly some British MEPs who are very happy on the gravy train. I’m not being particularly party political about it, but there are a whole group of people who [were] elected under the Ukip banner the last time, who play no role in committees [and] are not active at all.”
They don’t do reports, they don’t go on delegations, they don’t chair committees
Conservative MEP Dr Charles Tannock adds: “They don’t take the job seriously.
“Some of them attend committees and some less so, but they don’t do reports, they don’t go on delegations, they don’t chair committees and so on. So they’re not particularly proactive.
“Because Ukip have no influence in the parliament, and they’re generally dismissed as really just sort of populist, they’re absolutely useless in terms of contributing in net terms to the project.”
Though they wouldn’t describe themselves as “useless”, Ukip and other eurosceptic MEPs do not dispute that they don’t attend or take part in many committees. They say they use the time they’re not doing committee work to “raise awareness” of Britain’s position in the EU.
I have always preferred to spend my time uncovering stories and asking awkward questions to those who seek to govern us than simply becoming part of the machine
Ukip MEP Jane Collins says: “UK MEPs are massively outvoted in the European Parliament, and I have always preferred to spend my time uncovering stories and asking awkward questions to those who seek to govern us than simply becoming part of the machine.”
She argues that the European Parliament “encourages MEPs to ‘go native’”.
“My pledge was to represent the people of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, and I do not think they are best represented if I just upped sticks and moved to Brussels as others in the region have done and spend my time discussing punctuation for amendments than the biggest questions of how can we ensure Brexit and what needs to happen for businesses in the region to thrive.”
About 11 o’clock in the morning they’re in the bar
However, multiple MEPs from a range of parties told The Overtake that many Ukip and former-Ukip MEPs are more likely to be seen propping up the bar in Brussels or hanging out with each other than spending time in their constituencies.
Kirton-Darling says: “They use the plenary as basically a kind of boxing match, then, about 11 o’clock in the morning, they’re in the bar. They are the Daily Mail’s or the Daily Express’s version of an MEP.”
As Scott Cato mentioned, MEPs do get sanctioned if they miss more than 50% of plenary sessions. If this happens, they receive only half their staff allowance, a €4,000 per month sum given to MEPs to spend on staff and office expenses (though they don’t have to submit receipts for this and some parties do not check what this money is being spent on).
“People, citizens and voters, don’t really know what these guys are doing when they’re there in Brussels. They are overpaid sometimes; there have been some scandals regarding expenses that didn’t help to improve their public image,” says Dr Edoardo Bressanelli, a senior lecturer in European politics at King’s College.
Bressanelli is referring to a number of cases of European parties (the larger groups made up of MEPs from countries across the EU, including the UK) misusing taxpayers’ funds, something that the European Parliament takes a harder line on.
A recent example is the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom party, of which Ukip MEPs like Jane Collins and Gerard Batten are part, was forced to repay more than half a million euros, which was spent on champagne, gifts and expensive dinners.
“Very recently there was an authority created to scrutinise [the parties] much more carefully, in order to grant them the funds to perform certain party activities,” says Bressanelli, which means people can be reassured that the European Parliament is at least keeping an eye on expenses.
How do they get away with it?
It might not be news that those elected under the Ukip banner, many of whom have now left the party, are not always behaving as people might expect an MEP to behave, but what might come as a surprise is that there’s nothing tangible you can really do about it.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say a lot of MEPs are idle or don’t put the work in,” says David Cambell Bannerman, a Conservative MEP who was previously chairman of Ukip.
“The media does [hold MEPs accountable], which is good,” he adds.
It’s part of our negativity really — that we’re better than Europe and we don’t try to find out
Scott Cato disagrees.
“We need is a programme like ‘Yesterday in the European Parliament’ on the radio, and we need much more stuff on the Parliament channel. And we need people who are actually watching and understanding what we do,” she says.
Scott Cato says the European Parliament provides a free service to TV networks which want to cover discussions, however, the BBC brings its own crew.
It breaks your heart if you’re an MEP that the country hasn’t taken more notice of what goes on here
“The BBC made a policy decision not to use any of the parliamentary resources, which we paid for through our taxes. So if they come, they bring their own camera, they bring their own cameraman, and you have to crouch in a corner somewhere because they won’t use the studio. It’s the most ludicrous thing; we’ve paid for those services as part of being part of a democratic parliament.
“It’s part of our negativity really — that we’re better than Europe and we don’t try to find out. Yet, really important decisions get made here that affect people’s lives. And yeah, it breaks your heart if you’re an MEP that the country hasn’t taken more notice of what goes on here.”
While newspapers like the Guardian and the Financial Times have a Brussels correspondent, the British media covers only a fraction of what MEPs do. The result of this is that the British public are misinformed about the European Parliament.
A lot of journalists turned up here because of Brexit. Well, they needed to be here watching us making the laws in the first place
“I studied PPE at Oxford; I’ve been interested in politics all my life. But I was embarrassed by how much I didn’t understand about what happens here until I was elected as an MEP,” says Scott Cato.
“A lot of [journalists] turned up here because of Brexit. Well, they needed to be here watching us making the laws in the first place.”
With very little of what MEPs actually do reaching Brits, is it possible to do anything to hold our MEPs to account?
The European Parliament is built with the assumption that voters and political parties are responsible for their MEPs. This is a system that works — but only when MEPs care about participating and representing their constituents, and their constituents take an interest in what they’re doing.
But because of this informal system of accountability, there’s nowhere to complain to within the European Parliament if your MEP doesn’t lift a finger.
On the other hand, complaining to a political party might help (if they’re in one) — but only where the party takes attendance seriously. If parties don’t listen to criticism, the only other option is the ballot box.
Voters may punish or not punish national parties selecting those guys
“Voters may punish or not punish national parties selecting those guys [who don’t show up], very much in the same way as they do for national elections,” says Bressanelli.
The only real way to avoid having an MEP who doesn’t show up is to vote for one who will. Labour MEP Julie Ward says: “The main thing to remember is that everything [the ENF] propose is voted down by the majority.”
We’re winning most of the time!
For those on the left who might be tempted to vote for a Brexit-leaning politician, it’s important to remember that within the EU, left-wing MEPs do the most work and make the most decisions. Ward says: “Most of my amendments go through. We’re winning most of the time!”
One of the issues is that Brits use the first-past-the-post system for national elections and proportional representation for European elections, which means it’s easy for voters to be confused about who they’re voting for. Plus, a turnout of just 35% means the vast majority of people are represented by people and parties they didn’t choose.
To ensure you don’t become one of these people, register to vote by 7 May for the European elections on 23 May. We may only have a few months left of EU membership but it’s an opportunity to vote for MEPs who will put in the work and represent Britain, rather than being there simply to pick up their cheque.
Also part of our MEPs investigation:
Robyn Vinter 11th April 2019