Daily Telegraph column out today (Euro Parliament)

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

19 thoughts on “Daily Telegraph column out today (Euro Parliament)”

  1. Thanks for posting that, saves me having to buy the Telegraph. It’s a bloody awful Tory rag, isn’t it?
    Machicolated indeed!
    Bozza, you seem to have learnt nothing from your recent sojourn to Merseyside. In your article you make fun of the elected representatives of the major European countries with jaded stereotypes – lederhosen indeed! Perhaps Mick Howard will send you on a (fully paid for) European tour of apology after that. You will do well to bear in mind the words glass, houses and stones. The electorate of this country have chosen Mr Kilroy-Silk (and other morons) as our representative. Stereotypical British pompous ass. I am going to close my window to shut out the noise of raucous laughter coming from across the channel.

  2. But Vicus: how do you know he wasn’t wearing lederhosen? Were you there?

    ———————————————–

    And whilst I abhor the views of Mr. Buttiglione, I can understand the point being made here. Am going off to think for a bit. I may be some time.

  3. The answer to the European Parliament being a joke is to fix the current mess that is the UK Parliament? That’s an interesting thought.

    Parliaments, and representatives are undemocratic in whatever form they come. The US is, in this honest, honest in calling themselves a republic and not a democracy. There’s a brief nod to democracy in the voting process, but once we’ve had our pretence at being in control there’s 4 years of your MP paying more attention to what his party stands for than local issues. Witness, for example, Labour MPs standing up for PFI during their term, but come election time suddenly they desire to save their hospitals, or Europhilic conservative MPs suddenly decrying Brussels to all who will listen when elections draw near.

    Democracy, like communism, is an intellectual concept, and like communism, the political processes that names themselves with these labels are doing for branding purposes rather than being truthful.

    Until we get to a system where everyone votes, on every issue, in a secure way, without the need for representatives voting on “our behalf” we’re a mere shade of what democracy should strive to be.

  4. Why is it that of the first 3 comments, 2 completely missed the point? Perhaps in a rush to be first?

    Vicus – you completely ignore the fact that Boris is talking about MEPs from years gone by in your astute analysis that they can’t possibly have worn lederhosen, as it’s too stereotypical – who’s to say if they did, or did not, unless you actually went and saw at that time?

    And Barry, the entire thrust of the article was that the European Parliament is no longer a joke, which rather renders your first sentence pointless. As for the rest – a democracy where everyone votes on everything would require everyone to make themselves fully informed on every issue, which is impossible. We elect representatives who we choose on whatever basis we feel comfortable with whose job it then is to become knowledgeable about every issue and then make a decision in our best interests. When they cease to do so we then kick them out, if we collectively have the sense.

  5. Hmmm. There needs to be an edit system on this, cos my last but one sentence desperately needs some commas in it, eg. between ‘representatives’ and ‘who’, and between ‘with’ and ‘whose’. Sorry.

  6. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of the 2 of 3, Phil. 😉 Have some commas on me: ,,,

    I’d love to have the time to make myself informed enough on all these matters that I could vote on them, but you’re right: that’s why we need elected reps to speak for us.

    Sadly, I know too many people who don’t feel sufficiently informed to even vote in the elections we have, let alone on all the other issues that need decisions making on them.

  7. I’d argue that by reducing the EU parliment to the antics of one perma-tanned attention whore and the views of one “right wing” potential commissioner is still treating it as a joke. Perhaps it’s Boris’s “bored hack” personality coming out again.

    As for expecting an informed electorate, that doesn’t happen now, why would the ability to vote on everything require informed voting? That would be the ideal, but considering how lazy we all are that’s never going to happen. An informed electorate may elect those who they feel acts in their best interests, but once in power those representatives slip into voting the party line more often than not, and damn the best interests of their wards. As for removal, having to wait 4 years does not seem the best way. The electorate has very little power to immediatly remove those it feels are doing a bad job.

  8. Sorry Italy, I know he’s your man but we don’t like him

    Here is Boris Johnson (MP) on the recent troubles in the EU parliament: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….

  9. Well, to be fair to Boris, he didn’t talk too much about Kilroy, although the UKIP vote is politically important and will almost certainly affect the result of the next general election, whether they win seats or not.

    The views of the right-wing commissioner, and whether they affect his ability to do his job or not, are absolutely important, especially to the millions of Catholics in Italy who probably want him there *because* he has those views.

    And informed voting; because I don’t like that the majority view is often whatever Rupert Murdoch tells people it should be (via The Sun), and I certainly don’t want people to vote on every issue along the lines that the Sun tells them to. That’s not democracy either.

    Incidentally, anyone who’s ever watched parliament in action ought to know to vote for the party line they like the most, rather than on whatever their local MP puts on his leaflet.

  10. “Incidentally, anyone who’s ever watched parliament in action ought to know to vote for the party line they like the most, rather than on whatever their local MP puts on his leaflet.”

    Amen. Whether that is the ideal or not is irrelevant. These are the realities of our times.

    I’ve found the trick is to find a party you can agree with on around 60% of issues, as it’s highly unlikely the majority of us will ever find a party that 100% matches our ideals. (Of course, a large number of people have no political interests or ideals, but sadly there’s not a great deal we can do about that.)

  11. But accepting the reality of MPs being beholden to the party whip requires an informed electorate. The latest shots of Abi Tittmus’s assets appear to have more appeal than politics.

    (This is not an attempt to get Boris to pose in such a way)

    The Kilroy incident has more to do with him being semi-famous than politics, the commissioner problem is more to do with political correctness than getting commissioners that represent what’s best for the region.

    Oh to be a student again and actually believe that the political process actually mattered.

  12. I think it demeans the issues to refer to them as merely “political correctness”. I personally believe that it’s rather important that a man in charge of discrimination regards homosexuality as a sin. His personal opinions will surely impact upon his abilities to carry out his job to the high level that many of us would want. I’m also less than impressed with his comments on single mothers and women in general.

    A person with beliefs has two choices:

    1. Carry out his/her work in accordance with those beliefs. In this case I believe this compromises his work.
    2. Work against his/her own beliefs. Surely this makes him a hypocrite and also unpopular with anyone who currently supports his stance(s)?

  13. I agree, Fig. It’s much like the religious people who work in chemists and then refuse to give out birth control or morning-after pills because it conflicts with their own religious beliefs (there is a growing trend of this happening, see http://www.stockportexpress.co.uk/news/index/articles/article_id=6456.html for one instance).

    If your only choices are to serve the requirements of your job properly and betray your ethics versus follow your ethics and make a hash of your job, surely you need a new job?

  14. Yes, yes, yes, but the real issue is not what that man chooses to discriminate against. It’s about the fact that the Italian government chose the man as their representative (presumably because they thought he had something to offer) within the European Union and the fact that the Italian choice has been disregarded by a non-Italian political body that does not fancy that choice.

    It is so far wide of the normal notion of a nation state and a representative democracy that it is laughable. This is one of the many problems with the European parliament – non-representative of the people of the countries that make it up and not specifically answerable to the electorate for their decisons.

    What if they choose next not to allow an avowed atheist to take up a position because he believes that religion is a manifistation of a deluded or weak mind? Where does it end?

    Democracy is never neat and tidy and to try and make it so will destroy its meaning.

  15. Lori, I have indeed seen that article before and was horrified. In fact, knowing the way LiveJournal works I may have even seen it from you, somewhat indirectly! (I noticed from an earlier comment that you linked to Cavalorn’s LJ – he’s a friend of a friend and I knew him back in Manchester)

    I also agree with JohnJo that the whole thing is riddled with difficulties. All politics will be though, for as long as people disagree (i.e. forever). We just muddle along as best we can, trying to choose the lesser evil in all cases. Not always easy, by any means…

  16. I enjoyed Boris’s article – it just shows that we really need to be a lot more involved and a lot more informed about Europe.

    Contrary to the dead tree media view, Europe is interesting and colourful (and has real food, but let’s not go into that!). The only way we will progress politically, morally and all the rest is by exchanging ideas with the French, the Germans, the Italians etc.

    America is also important but if we are only oriented towards that one relationship, we are not going to have the breadth and perspective to be able to see with any circumspection where we are in the world (proof = Blair and the Iraq war).

    Of course the out-of-date British print media don’t go along with this, so the sooner the British wake up the fact that it is dumb to be reading yesterday’s news the better!

  17. How sad to see Kilroy reaching the Messiah-like “You’re nothing without me, NOTHING!” phase as he descends into a parody of himself.

    By “sad”, I mean “bloody hilarious”, of course.

  18. Oh, am I the only one who went around singing “heeey mister tangerine man” after reading the article? That paragraph contained more meow than the RSPCA cat wing. Good stuff! I liked the “pukey” acronym as well.

    Cheers Fig. Just goes to show the internet is just as small a world as anywhere else…either that or everybody knows Cavalorn (which they should, really).

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