Puffles learns about the demands of being an MEP and a number of issues that are far more nuanced than the mainstream media or national politicians make them out to be
This talk was organised by Cambridge European Society for Cambridge Festival of Ideas. When elected politicians give publicised talks/lectures on things like this, Puffles and I have a habit of turning up. Which is what we did.
“Nice one Pooffles, getting stuck into how ‘orrible the Tories are!!!”
Actually, these talks don’t really work like that. In my experience, standing up and ranting at such events may let off some political steam (as happened when local MP Julian Huppert was on a panel about the flawed Transparency in Lobbying Bill recently) but can sometimes alienate the people who you might want to persuade, simply because all they hear is noise coming from someone’s (often a man’s) mouth. I can be a hypocrite on this point, when my contributions sometimes have that impact with some people and often kick myself for having fallen into that trap. Hence why I’m trying to make more of an effort to bring other people into such conversations or letting other people go first when picked out in audiences. I’ve still got some way to go.
The issues I picked up Vicky on were on multinationals and on tax avoidance – two issues I noted she did not address in what I thought was actually a very good and thought-provoking lecture. You don’t have to agree with the final conclusions or the policy conclusions of a speaker to find the thoughts, experience and analyses interesting and thought-provoking. If anything, such things keeps politics’ watchers on our toes.
The EU is malfunctioning
For me, this goes without saying. You only have to look at the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone and what feels like both a leadership vacuum and policy paralysis in EU institutions – along with the symptoms of this – to know that a number of things need to change. The debate is over which ones, in which directions and to what extent? This is something that came up when the UK branch of the Young European Movement had their AGM in Cambridge earlier this year – Puffles went along to that gathering too. (See here).
Different political dispositions
We somehow managed to avoid the word ‘subsidiarity’ in the entire discussion until the end. The principle of subsidiarity is this. The political position of the Conservatives is that this principle is not working – too many issues that are being decided at EU level should be decided at national or even local level. To some extent I agree – yet it was only the intervention of a member of the audience from Italy who shone a light as to why subsidiarity was being badly implemented. Using the example of Italy & the regulation of universities, he said that Italians held EU institutions in higher esteem than its national institutions. Therefore to make progress on some issues (or even to hinder what its national government does), politicians sometimes go to the European Parliament to try and pass legislation rather than engaging with their national institutions.
At the other level – which is where my questions came from, there are some issues that in principle I thing could be dealt with at EU level – such as the regulation of multinational corporations and tackling cross-border tax avoidance. That’s not to say that dealing with these things at an EU level wouldn’t have their own problems. EU institutions are ‘distant’ by their very nature. Regional constituencies mean that MEPs inevitably have a limited presence in their constituencies. You also have the means at which EU commissioners are selected, their sheer numbers and the inability to target and kick out under-performing commissioners. The European Parliament (which can pass a vote of no-confidence) has to do so against the entire commission. The only time that has happened was in 1999.
The EU’s role in the world
Vicky touched on this – not least when talking about the impact of ‘red tape’, proposals such as the ‘Robin Hood’/Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) and further banking regulation. Essentially her point was that firms, businesses, industry and jobs would move to other parts of the world if the EU went ahead unilaterally with things like the FTT. I understand the point she makes and where she’s coming from in making it. I just disagree that this would automatically be the impact. Not least because this assumes that making profits is the only factor that that influences where firms are based. Even the bosses and managers may not want to up sticks and move to other parts of the world to do business. Moving a business is also not a zero-cost operation, as a number of firms that have outsourced services to other countries have found. You only have to look at the firms that have reversed the trend of moving call centre jobs back from the Far East to the UK because of customer complaints.
At the same time, it would be a mistake for proponents of policies such as the FTT (including myself) to think that pulling that single policy lever would solve everything. Pulling that lever and walking away (which all-too-often happens with new laws – there’s little post-legislative scrutiny that swiftly finds its way back into the policy machine) means any unforeseen consequences of the policy (and all policies have them) are left to fester, possibly leading to the results that Vicky mentioned in her speech.
International agreement on international problems
Vicky again touched on this, and I’d be interested to see how she would have responded under greater pressure/scrutiny. The context she used was about regulation of the banks in a global environment. She made a point about getting some global rules about banking and finance in place. The points I wanted to put to her were:
- What is the most accessible, transparent and effective process for developing the rules?
- In whose interest are the rules being written for?
- Who will monitor whether the rules are being stuck to (and using what systems, processes and even institutions?)
- Who will do the enforcing? What will the consequences of breaking the rules be and who will be the competent bodies to take action?
- And finally…with whatever the politicians come up with, how can we ensure that there are strong lines of accountability ultimately to the citizens of the world?
These questions could easily apply to other areas of international policy.
Criminals vs citizens
The statistic (that I’ve not been able to find/fact-check) from Vicky was that half of Europol’s cases had some sort of British involvement. This explains the disagreement in Whitehall and Parliament over the UK’s proposed opt-out of Europol regulation See the ministerial statement here, versus the House of Lords European Union Committee – in particular paragraph 24 of this report.
European policy initiative – where does it come from?
I’ve asked a similar question in previous blogposts about political parties: Where does policy initiative in your party come from? How does something go from being an idea to adopted party policy, to (if elected) government policy to implementation? The example Vicky gave was the Robin Hood tax, saying it was Labour pressure on MEPs that made this a policy proposal both in the European Parliament and with countries like France having already implemented it – with mixed results. The devils as always are in the details and the implementation.
What’s still not clear to me – or to most people I guess – is where policy initiatives from EU Commissioners comes from. When the EU issues a directive to be implemented by national governments, where do these directives come from? At what stages are EU citizens encouraged to take part in the debate and contribute? At what point are the formal consultations and how are they publicised? Where is the informed consent from ‘the people’ around policy directives? These were the things that I wanted to tease out.
Less legislation, better legislation, increased scrutiny of legislation
Vicky said these issues were applicable to the European Parliament just as a number of people have said they are in the UK Parliament. It sometimes feels like we’re at the stage that we have so many laws that even the lawyers don’t know what the law is! It’s one of the issues the Government is trying to tackle at a national level with the Good Law project – of which I’m part of a Cabinet Office working group scoping out the principles of how it might work. With laws generally you want to have some sort of an impact on people’s behaviour. But if they genuinely don’t know what those laws are, how can you hope to achieve the public policy goals through behaviour change driven by legislation?
Vicky’s challenge to current and future MEPs is to be part of the scrutiny process in the EU Parliament – not least because there number of MEPs and committees in the Parliament means the UK presence is spread very thin. Hence having MEPs not turning up for whatever reason can have a very real impact on the UK. From the perspective of those on the right/centre-right of politics, that impact could mean achieving the very opposite of what they want policy-wise simply because they were not in the chambers or the committee rooms to vote things down.
Vicky as a politician?
An impressive & knowledgeable advocate for her party on EU issues. (The type of politician I like debating with because you can have a proper discussion with them). It just happens that my political disposition – for example on workers rights – happens to be different to hers. It doesn’t make her analysis of the impact EU regulation is having say on small businesses any weaker. There were a number of things where we both agreed about the EU as it currently is.
Differing visions of what the EU could become
Where we differ is on that direction of travel and on what things are appropriate for an EU level and which things are not. For example, the Conservative Party policy has historically been against the EU’s social chapter, something the John Major’s government secured an opt-out from. The Labour government terminated the opt-out in the Treaty of Amsterdam (see ‘social policy’ under here), something which I feel was a good thing because it not only brought in protections for UK workers that they did not have at the time, but also gave a level of harmonisation that helped ensure firms could not play off nation states against each other on workers’ rights (as they do with things like tax breaks or tax rates) when looking to locate businesses.
As I’ve stated in previous blogposts, I think that the EU could become a force for good, using its economic clout to raise human rights and working standards across the globe. Most recently I called for the EU to bring in minimum standards under which imported manufactured goods can be sold in the EU – see this blogpost. My point being that the EU is one of the richest markets in the world. Therefore the EU has influence in saying to manufacturers in developing countries that if they want to export to the EU, they have to treat their workers with dignity. (A wider public policy challenge inevitably is in the detail – how do you implement, monitor and enforce this?)
The event overall?
Very thought-provoking. Venue-wise I was surprised to hear that the Faculty of Law was designed to have poor mobile and IT reception so as to ensure students concentrated. If that is the case, could Cambridge University please not organise events there, because it makes it impossible to live-tweet/live blog from there!