Friday, February 20, 2009

Czech what you say Mr Klaus

Yesterday in a formal sitting of the full European Parliament we were treated, or rather subjected, to a speech by the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union.

Mr Klaus launched into a diatribe winning much applause from the ragbag of neo-fascists, far-right and what's left of UKIP (those who haven't been locked up or made fools of themselves in the Australian outback), and provoking disbelief and embarrassment from the rest of us.

He spoke of how the very existence of the European Parliament actually increases the so-called 'democratic deficit' of the EU, distastefully made comparisons with communist parliaments of Cold War Eastern Europe, and questioned how many of the decisions currently taken at EU level should actually be taken at national or local level.

On his first point I wonder if he thinks that having a directly elected Parliament, representing the interests of voters and citizens at the heart of the decision-making process really makes the EU less democratic than other international organisations such as the UN where decisions are taken only by national governments with no formal parliamentary role. In the European Parliament we carefully scrutinise every legislative proposal, meet and correspond with our constituents and key stakeholders and subsequently shape the legislation as their democratically elected representatives. Those who stand on the sidelines and shout abuse, refusing to engage achieve nothing and betray those who they purport to represent.

On the point he made questioning whether the legislation we vote on really needs to be taken at the EU level I can only presume he has never heard of what in euro-speak is called 'subsidiarity'. Subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of European law and enshrined in the Treaty establishing the European Community. It means that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In the European Union, it means that each and every legislative proposal must be formally assessed to determine whether its objectives can be best achieved at the national, regional or local level. And even when the Commission argue that legislation at EU level is best MEPs and national governments in the Council do not always agree. It was Labour MEPs who led the battle against a proposed directive on soil, which would have imposed stringent regulation and requirements on soil users, duplicating much of the good work already being done in Member States. As soil does not generally cross borders, we could not see the added value of EU action so we voted to reject the whole proposal.

Of course I am not saying that the current state of affairs is perfect and that we cannot improve the way we work and what we do - indeed Labour MEPs are campaigning for reform on a wide-range of issues, a prime example being the one seat campaign for the European Parliament (getting rid of Strasbourg).
You can watch sessions of the European Parliament here.


  1. As I understand it, I can't vote for or against you. You are nominated to a list for which I must vote if I support your party, and positions on that list are decided by your party. There is no compulsory voting, and no recall if turnout is low, so if three electors turn out and two vote for your list, you're in. That's my only say in your election.

    I also understand that, if a third of parliament members turn up in the chamber, out of 732, there is a quorum. So even if you decide to boycott the whole farce of going to strasbourg, and locate yourself where you want, as a proper parliament would have done or have the right to do you'll need two thirds of your colleagues to agree. Quora are even lower for the election of quaestors, committee chairs and so on.

    I also understand that you have a veto but no or limited initiative power on a very small amount of legislation. The Council meets in secret and decides everything.

    Subsidiarity is indeed enshrined in the EU treaty. Can you give me any example of where it is applied, or an example of any situation in which EU funds, EU-funded lobby groups, the Commission, the member governments in Council, or local bureaucrats have any respect for it?

    I also understand that I have absolutely no power over your expenses, your fine pension, your salary, or any abuse perpetrated by any of your colleagues and opponents in the parliament.

    So why is the President of the Czech republic in error?

    Good luck in your blogging by the way. I don't mean anything personal by my questions. You can answer during your committee meetings, since very little time is vital over there.

  2. Glenis,

    You comment on the principle of subsidiarity, that decisions are made as closely to the citizens as possible. Obviously this is not applied nowhere near as much as it should be. I appreciate that there are things that are possibly better applied at a pan European or even worldwide level, enviromental issues spring to mind. However these are few and far between. For example, could you please explain why Britains opt out from the working time directive is a decision that needs to be made at a European level. Surely Britain's position on regulation of workers is better decided at a national level as we seemingly have a different attitude to this than many other European countries such as France. I beleive that the number of hours I can work should be my decision according to my circumstances and priorities and see no need for regulation restricting this. I believe that most other Brits would agree with me on this, and if i am right a decision made at national level would reflect this, providing that MPs do their job and represent their constituents.

  3. Thank you for your comments and wishing me luck with the blogging Martin Meenagh.

    I'm not sure where you are getting your information from but I would disagree on a number of points.

    Firstly if you are an East Midlands constituent you certainly can vote for me (although I suspect you will not be doing so) in the elections on June 4. For the elections each Party has a list of candidates with a ranking. I can't speak for other parties but in my own the candidates and their ranking are decided by a democratic postal ballot of party members. I am number one on Labour's list, Roy Kennedy is number two, Kathy Salt number three, David Morgan number four and Cate Taylor number five We are standing on the same platform, with the same manifesto and if elected will vote accordingly. If you don't want to vote for us then you are entirely free to vote for another party or individual candidate. I'm sorry if you don't find that democratic enough.

    Regarding your points on compulsory voting, and recall if turnout is low as far as I am aware this is no different to Westminster and local council elections.

    As for Strasbourg, my views, and that of Labour MEPs are well known. We are working to change this but ultimately the decision is one for national governments in the Council. However we are actively campaigning on this issue and I trust you would support us on that.

    The European Parliament co-decides legislation which means that MEPs can amend and approve legislation in agreement with the national governments in the Council. Co-decision is the predominant form of procedure used for legislation and while the process is complex it certainly gives MEPs a decisive say in legislation passed. As for the Council, well no system is perfect and I certainly wouldn't pretend otherwise. I have been in favour of the opening up of meetings when the Council is acting in its legislative capacity and this is now happening more and more public. You can even watch proceedings using online streaming

    As regards subsidiarity I gave an example in the piece where Labour MEPs actually voted against the soil directive and the national governments in the Council also kicked it into the long grass, on subsidiarity grounds. It is applied in every draft piece of legislation. If you were to check each proposal there is a section entitled 'subsidiarity' which details why after assessment the proposal was put forward. Of course I'm not saying this is always correct but I have given one clear example of this and I suspect the key is in the proposals which weren't ever formally tabled due to lack of legal competence in the first place.

    Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment.

  4. In response to 'Matty' - thanks for your comment. First of all the Working Time directive is health and safety law designed to protect workers and consumers from the dangers that working excessive hours can bring. Working more than 48 hours per week on a regular basis can pose significant risks to health. Excessive working time is linked to stress, depression and heart disease. In jobs where concentration is vital, long hours can be a direct cause of accidents and so therefore pose a threat to consumers.

    For me it is an important point of principle that exemptions from health and safety law should not be allowed. However, in order to make this change easier for business, we also voted to extend the period for the averaging of hours from four months to twelve months. Such flexibility ensures that business can manage their workers' hours to accommodate peak periods. In fact it would allow 72 hour working weeks, as long as there is a compensatory reduction in hours to ensure the average is no more than 48 hours over a 12 month period.

    On your particular point of subsidiarity, as with social legislation, I believe it is important that minimum standards of health and safety legislation are decided at the EU level. We are part of a huge internal market of over 450 million consumers and it is important to avoid what is known as social dumping. This means a race to the bottom on social conditions and is a threat to protection of workers through lowered health and safety standards. That is why I am convinced that this framework needs to be set at the European level.

    In Europe a worker dies every three and a half seconds from an 'accident' at work or as a result of a work-related illness. I don't know about you but I think this is totally unacceptable."

  5. Hi Glenis
    Many thanks for your reply. I appreciate your time.

    Let's depersonalise things. I made all that stuff about Mrs Honeyball up on my blog, for fun. I'm conscious of how aggressive blogland can seem and you are making an effort, so I want to assure you of my bona fides.

    Actually, I was a Labour voter once and find it hard to vote for anyone else, so I don't vote. I also object--and it isn't personal--to corporate voting. I would like to vote for or against individuals, though I understand the point you make that you are all Labour members. It just isn't democratic to say 'here are all our candidates, you must vote for them all as a group', though I take your point. Ranking is an internal party matter, as I understand it.

    If you are prepared to exercise the nuclear option of rejecting the council, reject the Strasbourg trip. Just organise your colleagues, and don't go. Don't take expenses for the office, don't maintain an office there and forego it for a time. Show some self-respect as a Parliament or the Council will always treat you the way they do.

    Subsidiarity is a roman catholic concept which apes the American ninth and tenth amendments. As in both institutions, it is more honoured in the breach than in actuality because no one wants to give up power. A system of devolving far more would mean less for the parliament to do--and a leaner, more effective assembly could result. Do you have any concrete plans to do that? Any intimation of a contract with Europe in your group? The European Parliament seems to be a place to kick the likes of Rachida Dati and Edith Cresson or Danny Cohn Bendit (and I admire the former) without the power of the American House of Representatives.

    I think personal voting conveys legitimacy, (though I note more men than women think that--and more men benefit from such a system). If you can't get people to vote for you, like the westminster government especially, and have only a fifth of the electorate behind you, you alienate and deligitimise politics. The European Parliament and the councillors and GLA members who represent me in London are not known to me, can't do anything about PFI contracts, don't offer me a choice about their remuneration and claim my name amongst others for their doings. They are a class apart. There are too many. I am not, in any real sense, represented, except, bizarrely, by the House of Lords who seem, somehow, more normal. How did things come to this?

    Thanks for telling me about the procedure of subsidiarity--the signing statement-- I didn't know that.

    As for co-decision, I am glad it's been enhanced--but I worry about the tendency to rush things like the internet regulation decisions Charles Clarke was keen on a few years ago through. Parliaments like yours are sometimes engines to impose folly like environmental regulation or business rules without understanding the practical effects, as the landfill directive and the stuff matty was referring to seem to attest. But I appreciate the Council and Commission often collude.

    I think you'd be much more legitimate if there were fewer MEPs, personal votes, open primaries, and a clear form of power--and if you just didn't go to Strasbourg. We probably agree more than you think. My family live in the East Midlands and if they vote, they'll vote for you, probably.

    I made all that stuff about Mrs Honeyball up. She's not after your job, and I'm sure that in her mind the jesuits would be after her if she was.

    Thank you for your time, I appreciate it, though I suspect you have a reasonable amount on your hands. Don't stop blogging if the only comments you get are criticisms, they come with the territory but you can reach out to people. It might gradually legitimise you. My worry is that the things I've described, combined with economic crisis, are just going to get the BNP--who benefit from not being personalised too--into the parliament in June.