A combination of the expenses scandal in Westminster and the European parliamentary elections is producing a strange outcome in the newspapers. On the one hand, we are told that the European elections don’t matter much, that the turnout on 4 June will be low and deservedly so. On the other hand, we are told that MPs have been abusing expenses because they don’t have anything else to do, now that all their power has gone to the European Union.
The first argument has some merit. Some of the most important issues that politics deals with – the balance between public and private spending in the economy, criminal justice, education – are dealt with at national level and not by the EU. If those are the only things you care about, then there is no reason to vote.
But if you are interested in the way we work and earn a living, then the European Parliament is for you. It deals with the impact on the environment that our daily lives have, it decides on our rights as consumers and employees, it discusses our trade and agriculture policies and they way they affect the rest of the world. Everyone can have a say on these issues, if only they want to. It is as simple as going to vote on 4 June.
The second argument is simply wrong. Even if the main decisions about the regulation of economic and commercial life are now European decisions rather than national decisions, national MPs are not cut out of the picture. Those European decisions also have to be taken by national government ministers, who could be held to account in national parliaments if national MPs were so inclined. And after the directives have been agreed in Brussels, they then have to be implemented in national law, and there is often great scope for influencing the way that this is done. Plenty for national MPs to do.
(The Lisbon treaty will hand even greater powers and opportunity to national MPs for influencing EU legislation. Funny that the people who complain the most about the supposed loss of powers by national parliaments are the same ones opposing a treaty that would increase those powers.)
The truth is that looking at the balance of power in the EU between national parliaments and the European Parliament does not get you very far. One also has to think about the power of national governments, exercised both in the national capitals and also behind the scenes in committees in Brussels. It should be the joint project of parliaments of all types to hold those national governments to account.