European Commission: National Parliaments

Part of Deregulation Bill (Programme) (No.3) – in the House of Commons at 5:44 pm on 10th March 2015.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 5:44 pm, 10th March 2015

I have not had conversations about those specific issues. However, there is everything to be said for making strong objections to anything that we disagree with and for trying to overturn proposals for legislation if we do not find them acceptable. We would probably find quite a lot of support among the electorates of many member states, even though we do not find it among their politicians. Even in countries that have voted against joining the euro, one will find that the political class privately wants to join it.

One country that has voted time and again—twice now—to stay outside the European Union is Norway, yet for a long time the political class tried to pressure its own people to vote to join it. I am a member of the all-party parliamentary British-Norwegian group and at a recent meeting with the Norwegian ambassador he said that support for joining the EU had dropped to 11%, which is pretty decisive. Nevertheless, it is vital in any meaningful democracy that elected parliamentarians listen to the voices of their constituents—to the people outside.

One reason I disagree so strongly with systems of proportional representation is because they break that link with electors. In a national list system, the only people who matter are those who put candidates on that list—the party leaders—and not the people outside who vote for them. We have personal relations and contacts with our voters in single-Member seats, and as I mentioned in a debate yesterday, last weekend I spent six hours knocking on doors in my constituency and listening to what people had to say. That link is important in a democracy.

I mentioned Bagehot, but more recently essayists from our own Chamber have contributed to a new book, “What They Never Told You about Parliament and How It Should be Put Right”. Some of our colleagues from this House and another place have made a lot of suggestions for increasing the democratic power of this House in holding the Executive to account, which is absolutely right. I would also like more democracy within parties to hold their leadership to account, but that is perhaps a dangerously radical view that would not be shared by some of my colleagues on the Front Bench. I have always believed in democracy being something that comes from beneath, rather than from the top.

When I was studying politics at university we covered political constitutions, including the Soviet constitution that was written in the mid-1930s, no doubt by friends of Stalin. Clearly, a great democratic panoply of organisations and structures meant absolutely nothing because all power resided in Stalin’s office. It is where power resides that really matters. If power is with the people, that is what democracy should be about; if power is with the elite and people have do what the elite tell them, that is not democracy. All sorts of structures may look like democracy, but if there is no power in the hands of ordinary people, voters and their directly elected representatives, that is not true democracy. I am not talking about anarcho-syndicalism or anything of that kind; I am talking about representative democracy of the kind we have now.

I believe that in the European Union power really resides in secret councils and the backrooms of the Commission. I heard a story from a Member of the European Parliament who some years ago stumbled by mistake into an office in the Commission building, and found themselves with a group of officials who were deciding who was going to hold a certain post. They wanted a commissioner on social affairs. That sounds very socialist and left-wing, so they wanted somebody weak. They thought, “Ah yes, we’ve got this rather feeble commissioner from one of the smaller east European countries. They won’t cause any trouble so let’s put them forward”, and that is what happened. That is not democracy either. I think we ought to elect our commissioners directly from Parliament. That would be a good idea because we would have a say in who our commissioner is, rather than them being appointed. These issues are fundamental.

Today I had a meeting with an academic researcher from Germany—a very charming, intelligent person. He said, “You’re a critic of the European Union. What would you like it to be like?” I said, “I am passionately European in the sense that I love Europe as a continent of wonderful peoples, countries, cultures—everything about me shrieks ‘Europe!’. I love the music, art, wine, peoples, languages—everything about Europe I love, but not the European Union, which is a political construct imposed on Europe; it is not Europe.”

When people talk about Europe but mean the European Union, they are trying to con us into thinking that Europe can only have the European Union, but there are alternatives. My alternative, which I put to the academic researcher, was that we should have a loose association of democratic member states with elected Parliaments that meet and agree on issues for mutual benefit, but that there should be nobody above those Parliaments telling them what to do. We could no doubt have joint ventures on military aircraft, for example; we have done that from time to time. Concorde involved a joint agreement between France and Britain. We could have bilateral and multilateral international agreements on all sorts of things. We could even agree to standardise the way in which we do things, but these should all involve mutual agreements between the various member states, rather than having something imposed from a very undemocratic bureaucracy above the member states of Europe.

It would be a splendid idea to have a loose association of member states coming together to agree things that are of mutual benefit, and I would love to see that happen. In a few months’ time, I shall be taking a holiday in Italy. I normally go to France, but this year it will be Italy, and I shall enjoy Europe in all its glory. However, I shall continue to be critical of the European Union, which is not Europe.