Jack Straw has been a fixture of British politics for more than thirty years, consistent in his moderate euroscepticism, effective as Foreign Secretary in opposing whenever possible democratic institutional reform in the EU, and whose views of the Parliament have oscillated between the critical and the unprintable.
In his call at the IPPR conference (Guardian 22/02/2012) for the EP to be abolished and replaced with ‘an assembly of national parliaments’ he displays a nostalgia for a parliamentary construct in the EU which was tried between 1958 and 1979 and which failed. Part-time European parliamentarians with national mandates and duties were unable to carry out their largely consultative functions then. How could a dual mandate MP/MEP possibly cope now in the era of generalised co-decision with the EP scrutinising and sharing in responsibility for practically all EU laws, ensuring full public accountability of the Commission to Parliament and parliamentary oversight of the EU’s external and trade activities? The answer is that such an assembly would be a figleaf for democratic control, making life easier certainly for diplomats and bureaucrats and, indeed, foreign ministers but totally incapable of shaping EU decisions.
The problem for the Parliament is not a lack of powers, of competences or seriousness in the way it carries out its democratic responsibilities. Any objective asessment of the use it has made of its powers to improve sometimes very complicated legislation, to hold the Commission to account and to make EU financing more transparent, would have to recognise that the Parliament is playing the kind of role for which it was set up, and for which we have elections.
The real difficulty resides in addressing not a democratic deficit but a participation deficit. It would be helpful of course if national media were to follow the work of the EP more seriously. But the key has to be the transforming of the elections to the European Parliament into clear choices about Europe’s future, with European parties offering competing programmes which could start the process of making those elections genuinely European. The record of Mr Straw and his colleagues in office was to campaign halfheartedly at best during European elections, and preferably to avoid throughout any mention of Europe- with the dismal outcomes that we all remember. If high-profile national politicians give the impression that there is nothing relevant at stake in an election, then why should voters put themselves out?
Now he comes up with a simple solution; abolish the EP altogether. Needless to add that such a proposal would require the unanimous agreement of all member states- a precaution for constitutional change upon which Mr Straw always insisted- and will therefore simply not happen. The next elections to the EP take place in Spring 2014- politicians anxious to ‘bridge the divide between the European union and the European people’ should devote their energies to making those elections a success, rather than floating half-baked ill-thought out ideas which were already discredited forty years ago.
Julian Priestley, former Secretary General of the European Parliament 1997-2007