Professor Simon Usherwood on why letting the Brexit Party paint itself as ‘the eyes of the public’ at the European Parliament is not an option, and why the institution must better engage with citizens.
First published in September 2019.
Last week, the European Parliament had one of its regular discussions about Brexit, following the meeting between Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg.
As before, the Parliament passed a resolution to the effect that a deal was desirable, a no-deal was very bad, and citizens’ rights must be protected in every case.
Rather than discuss that any further, or the Luxembourg meeting – which seems to have left everyone with varying amounts of egg on their face – I’d instead like to consider it from another angle.
The evening before, Belinda de Lucy, Brexit Party MEP for the South East, posted this:
This got a lot of interest, especially from those who follow such things, who pointed out it was a public session, with journalists present and all the rest.
Indeed, on the day, there was various media coverage in the UK, on the rolling blogs and some pieces like this on the BBC (or this on Sky News), albeit typically rolling it in with the other day’s Brexit developments.
But the wider framing – of Brexit Party MEPs as the ‘eyes’ of the public – is the more pertinent one.
For the very large part, most people in the UK don’t know how the European Parliament works, in practical terms. At best, I’d guess a lot of them would see the word ‘Parliament’ and extrapolate from there.
That leads to problems.
The European Parliament occupies a substantially different position in the EU to the UK Parliament in the UK. It hasn’t got the power to initiate laws; its power of sanction are much more clumsy; and its day-to-day operation is structured by the party groupings more than any government-opposition dynamic.
To read de Lucy’s Twitter feed is to see the practical effect of that: daily discoveries of the inequity of the system and its failure to meet expectations. And, ultimately, a reinforcement of the belief that this is an organisation that the UK should have no part of.
Brexit Party MEPs have been ribbed a lot since the elections for their shock and dismay, but it’s also clear that the European Parliament is a difficult place to navigate.
To take a rather different approach to this, we might look to Germany, where satirist Martin Sonnenborn recently completed his term as a MEP (his write-up is currently doing very well in the bestseller charts). When not trying to adapt legislation on the curvature of fruit to apply to weapons exports, he also was pointing out the scale and complexity of expenses and the inanity of having to decamp to Strasbourg every month.
Sonnenborn and de Lucy are both indicative of the trouble that the EU faces in engaging with citizens: it might be great to make claims about the democratisation of the Union through the direct election of MEPs and their role in law-making, but much more of what people see is alien procedure and unnecessary waste.
That’s not a Brexit problem, but an EU one, and one that will remain once the UK leaves.
(BTW it’s also a problem for individual states’ Parliaments, as Isabel Hardman’s excellent book set out for the UK last year)
Beyond the Brussels bubble, there is relatively little interest in the machinations of the system. Even when individuals or parties try – such as the Brexit Party’s BrexBox – then take-up is rather small.
But try the EU must, if it is not to fall into a repetition of the situation in the UK, where the only ones keen to talk about European integration were the ones least disposed to support it.
Go back to that tweet and look now not at the people linking to the live-stream, but to all the people thanking de Lucy for her work.
Someone’s communicating, and it might not be you.🔷
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