The Tory Euro-group are doing a heroic job. They do their best to try to intercept or improve the rubbish legislation that comes from Brussels. They have some real successes to their credit, and they deserve support in May. But they are in a small minority – and when the vast majority of MEPs are bent on mischief, there is little they can do to hold them back. Take the idiotic decision by the Euro-parliament to insist that on-call British doctors were still working, even when they were asleep; and that those sleeping hours counted towards their maximum working week.
This has caused real problems in the NHS. No government in Europe supports this measure. Not even the EU commission supports it; and yet the MEPs took a positive delight in meddling with British health care management. Why? Because they could, and because they have steadily been acquiring new powers of “co-decision” with national governments.
Well, I know what you will say. Just pull out; just get out of the whole EU, and our problems with the parliament will be over. It may indeed come to that, if we cannot get what we need in a renegotiation: an improved single market, that genuinely works in the interest of British people and businesses. But that renegotiation will not begin for another year, when David Cameron gets the mandate he needs at the general election.
Indeed, the only circumstances in which we will not now have an in-out referendum are if Ed Miliband wins the election; which is why I hope no one with a remotely Euro-sceptic outlook will vote for anyone other than the Tories. Such a vote would do nothing but put Labour in power and take the referendum off the table. In the meanwhile, we will hear all sorts of nonsense about how we Tories are deluded, and the other European countries aren’t interested in treaty changes, and that we will never get what we want.
I don’t believe this. There is plenty of support around Europe for a reformed EU; David Cameron has been extremely successful at building alliances, and, as I say, if the British public don’t like the results of the renegotiation, we’re off. There is, though, something that we can do all on our own, without our partners, that will help to address the absurdity of the Euro-parliament, and the public’s sense of alienation from a body that, alas, has an ever-growing role in our lives.
We could decide, now, that we were going to change the electoral basis on which we send representatives to Strasbourg. Instead of holding these ludicrous pseudo-elections, where nobody knows who the hell they are voting for, we should appoint the British delegation of 73 from our already sizeable stock of parliamentarians. Yes: let them be Westminster MPs – not picked by the whips, but by lot and with the seats roughly proportional to the parties’ representation in Westminster. There is no reason why MPs should not take on this duty: they are well used to sitting on Bill committees. They have the time.
There are all sorts of attractions to this solution. First, we would save quite a bit of money: the cost of having all these extra Euro-MPs ultimately falls on the UK taxpayer. More important, it would mean that Britain’s delegation would be hard-wired to reflect the will of the British parliament, and the will of their local electors.
There would be no sense of them being in some way supranational politicians: they would be constantly back among their colleagues at Westminster, explaining what was going on in Europe and justifying their actions. They would have no incentive to keep aggrandising the power of the Euro-parliament; no motive to meddle or to try to supplant Westminster, because they would emanate from Westminster. And above all they would be much more directly accountable.
People, on the whole, would know who they were. As Hugo Dixon suggests in a new book on Europe, this idea is by no means new, in the sense that this was how the Euro-parliament was originally going to be constituted. European governments decided not to go down that route, because they were still full of federalist enthusiasm.
Those days are emphatically over. Euro-scepticism is rampant in large parts of Europe, and cynicism about the parliament is at an all-time high. I see no reason at all why Britain should not lead the way, and change the system of sending MEPs to Strasbourg so as to make them much more accountable and familiar to their electors. Other countries would soon follow suit. If we are going to remain part of the Euro-parliament – and it is a growing if – we might as well send a delegation that has a clear mandate from the people.