The Euro parliament is no longer a joke for bored hacks
By Boris Johnson
It was a pretty chastening experience to be an MP yesterday, and not just for your columnist, but for all 659 of us. There we were, shuffling through the green-carpeted lobbies in the time-honoured way, trailing our fingers on the warm worn oak, bowing to the tellers, bending together in the forgivable halitosis of intimate conspiracy. Time after time, we gathered to vote on the Domestic Violence Etc Bill (Lords) Report stage, expressing the will of the people according to our ancient system. And what did the world care? Not a fig.
Where was the action, the news, the story? It was hundreds of miles away in the upstart parliament of Strasbourg, the restaurant-rich Alsatian city. In Westminster, we beavered away in Gormenghast-like oblivion. In Strasbourg, they had excitement; they had drama; they had the noisy tectonic grindings of the new constitutional geology. What a scene it must have been for the immense army of journalists, lobbyists and poules de luxe who follow the Euro parliament’s caravanserai from Brussels to Strasbourg. What gasps there must have been in the space-age bars and galleries, where they sit sipping their cremant d’Alsace. First a British political party, UKIP, went into spasm, with momentous consequences for the forthcoming general election. It is hard to know what verb to use of Kilroy’s resignation of the UKIP whip. Did he flounce out? Did he stalk out? Did he blow a gasket? It does not matter.
UKIP may be minuscule, but when UKIP splits – like any other subatomic particle – the effects can be spectacular. It was to Kilroy that such natural Tories as Joan Collins were drawn, when UKIP began to make its advances earlier this year. It was Kilroy’s tangerine-man charisma that seemed to lure the Tory grassroots; but if Kilroy was here, he certainly doesn’t seem to be here any more. Perhaps some of the Ukippers will now drift back to the Tories; perhaps Kilroy will found his own new Party for United Kingdom Independence (PUKI), and sweep the country. It does not matter. The salient point is that it all happened somewhere in the Rhineland, and we in London can only look on in wonderment.
And yet the detonation of UKIP was nothing, of course, next to the decision of the parliament to throw out the new European Commission, mainly because it disliked the cut of the jib of Sig Rocco Buttiglione. It is not our purpose here to discuss the rights and wrongs of this decision. Rocco is a bit hardline for my taste, but there have been many who have already pointed out that insofar as he believes homosexuality to be a sin, Sig Buttiglione is only echoing Catholic teaching. Many have observed that his views on unmarried mothers are certainly Right-wing, but do not put him beyond the pale of civilised discourse.
It has been well said that there is a vital distinction between the public and the private sphere, and that Sig Buttiglione is entitled to his personal opinions, and that there is no reason in principle why he should not carry out his Eurocratic duties. Here we are in Britain, so deferential to freedom of personal belief that we put aside a special prayer room for a Satanist on a Royal Navy vessel; and yet when a man comes before the Euro parliament professing orthodox Catholic teaching, he is chucked out in disgust! It is weird; and yet, as I say, it is not the justice of the Euro parliament’s actions that should detain us. It is the fact of the decision.
What is a commissioner? Never mind the nonsense they swear in their oaths, about loyalty to the European cause. The EU commissioners are there at the top of the bureaucracy very largely to represent the point of view of the government that sent them there. British commissioners may sometimes go native, but on the whole the Italian commissioner sticks up for Italy, the German commissioner for Germany, and so on.
Sig Buttiglione was sent to Brussels with all the solemn authority of the government in Rome. That government’s authority in turn derives from the sovereign people of Italy. And yet Sig Buttiglione has been rejected by a polyglot babel of 25 countries, and the will of the people of Italy has been frustrated. What we saw yesterday was the collision of two democratic imperatives: the right of the people of Italy to have their government’s man in Brussels, and the right of that nebulous demos, the people of Europe – represented in this bizarre mother-in-law of parliaments – to say no.
Years ago, when there were only 12 countries in the EU, and the hemicycles were less opulent, I used to report from the Euro parliament, and I am afraid some of us reporters used to treat it as a bit of a joke. There would be Italian hard-core porn stars, elected on the list system, rubbing shoulders with choleric former SS men, and curious Tyrolean Greens in trilbies and lederhosen. The parliament would pass portentous motions condemning things completely outside its power, such as famines and earthquakes. We used to sip our cremant d’Alsace, write a few funny stories, and go back to Brussels. I am not sure the Euro parliament is a joke any more.
Parliaments tend to acquire powers, as their inhabitants learn how to use the constitutional tools at their disposal. Under the various treaties, the parliament has gained ever more ways of amending legislation, and European legislation has become ever more burdensome.
And yet hardly anyone knows who their Euro MP is, and hardly anyone votes in the Euro elections. It is deeply anti-democratic. What is the answer? The first step is to recognise what is going on, and to take steps to shore up the machicolated and moth-eaten institution in which I now sit. We may be less exotic than the Euro MPs, but at least people tend to know who we are, where to find us, and how to get rid of us.
Boris Johnson is MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator