European Parliament elections
MEP candidates set out their stalls

Sussex branch       Recent news from central and eastern Europe     What's on

On 4 June 2009, exactly 30 years since direct elections to the European Parliament began, we will be voting to choose the MEPs for the South East of England.  It is a huge constituency stretching from Dover to Oxford – London is a separate constituency. The electoral system is proportional representation, which means that voters are presented with a list for each party and the candidates on the list are chosen in order according to the strength of the vote for that party.

On Saturday 9 May there was a lively Question Time meeting on the European Parliament Elections , organised by the Sussex Branch of the European Movement and held at the Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton. Five MEP candidates were on the platform. The meeting was chaired by Jack Hazelgrove, a veteran of Brighton & Hove politics.

Two of the speakers were MEPs first elected to represent the South-East constituency in 1999 - Peter Skinner (Labour) and Caroline Lucas (Green). Harry Aldridge (UKIP) was a new candidate, age just  22, and Catherine Bearder (LibDem) is now second on the Liberal Democrat list and therefore likely to be elected in June. Richard Robinson (Conservative) stood in for Richard Ashworth MEP who was not able to come.

Professor Dave Hill, a Euroelection campaign candidate for a new party NO2EU-YestoDemocracy, spoke from the floor with a robust protest about the European Parliament "gravy-train".

Europe from several viewpoints
Many viewpoints colour attitudes to Europe

People trafficking, whistleblowers, healthcare

A number of 'hot potato' issues came up. Despite the obvious differences in opinion the meeting was cheerful and good-humoured. Question topics ranged from people trafficking, whistleblowers and healthcare to the burning question of why some candidates supported the Government’s decision to refuse a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and whether the system of proposing legislation to the European Parliament should be changed so that MEPs could introduce legislation directly – at present only the European Commission has the right to do this.

Clare Calder (Member of the UK Youth Parliament for Brighton and Hove) asked “Given persistent discrimination against, and inequality of, women in EU countries, widespread domestic and sexual violence and the poor record on women's rights of some new and potential member states, what  will the candidates do to further equal rights and safety for women and girls?”

Catherine Bearder said there was continuing concern about human trafficking. In Europe it was clear that the most vulnerable parts of society suffer during a financial downturn, for instance the Roma people. One positive example of action came when the Metropolitan Police set up a unit which worked especially closely with Lithuania. There was need to spread good practice throughout the EU states and indeed beyond the EU.

Caroline Lucas pointed out that the EU requires human rights clauses on all agreements throughout the world; the problem was that they were not always implemented. Nevertheless the EU provides the potential to give human rights more priority and ensure they are applied more widely.

Peter Skinner thought the burden of proof must be with employers to ensure there was no discrimination. He suggested the example of banks, where there was a high proportion of women employees, and how the part-time working directive was an important contribution to fair conditions.

Harry Aldridge asked whether Europeans should really be imposing their liberal values on other non-EU governments.

Gwen Eggleston asked “Our Energy Secretary of State, Ed Miliband, is heavily focussed on building new clean coal power stations. What of EU policy? for or against?”

Caroline Lucas referred to recent proposals from Energy Minister Ed Miliband to invest in research into carbon capture, with the aim of reducing carbon emissions by one-fifth. But the technology for carbon capture did not yet exist. The government was unavoidably short of money and this would be a waste when so many other tried and tested alternatives were available already.

Richard Robinson agreed that only 20% could be cut from carbon emissions by the capture method, so it would not be the best way forward. The EU had taken a step in the right direction by initiating the carbon trading scheme, on which there could be gradual improvement. But it was not a proper function for the EU to impose unvarying targets on all EU countries.

Catherine Bearder acknowledged there were differences of opinion over carbon energy versus nuclear energy. But the Liberal Democrats firmly believed that governments should take responsibility for research and development. The current UK government had adopted contradictory policies, for instance in advocating carbon emission reduction while approving a third runway for Heathrow airport.

Grant Amyot (from the International Study Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, based at Herstmonceux Castle) asked: “Do you think that voters should vote in the European elections on the basis of the performance of the British government and the opposition parties at Westminster, or on the basis of the parties’ platforms on the issues the European Parliament has power over, such as the environment or cross-border provision of services?”

Peter Skinner thought the heart of the problem lay in the differences between national electoral systems. MEPs were so often elected on national rather than European issues. Our election campaign, he said, should be fought on European issues.

Caroline Lucas agreed. She also pointed out that there were vast discrepancies between what parties say nationally and do at EU level. For example, conservatives in the Parliament often vote in ways which constrain the extent of ‘green’ legislation, whereas in the UK they are trying to promote themselves as very ‘green’.

Richard Robinson regretted that staying in touch with constituents was very difficult for MEPs – with roughly 2.5 million voters per MEP. Catherine Bearder emphasised that an elected MEP has a duty to report back to their voters. This could be through local media, websites, partnership with local representatives who could handle day-to-day enquires. Peter Skinner felt it was important that people should search out what their MEPs were doing and thinking, He referred to Godfrey Bloom (a UKIP MEP in the forth of England), who was quoted talking of “Romanian peg-makers” and women failing to clean behind fridges. Harry Aldridge explained this was an unfortunate joke from a robustly individual MEP, taken out of context.

Betty Rider asked “What is the current position in the European Parliament on favoured trade status for Israel – how was that arrived at and what is the likely future scenario?”

Caroline Lucas said the EU-Israel Association Agreement did contain the required human rights clause but the problem was enforcement. She wants the current agreement to be suspended and no upgrade. There had certainly been significant delay in upgrading trade relations with Israel as a result of the attacks on Gaza and a new government in Israel.

Peter Skinner agreed that the current situation was a travesty, unfortunately coinciding with a period of vacuum in United States administration.

Joan Moorhouse asked “I understand that people in other European countries also have to suffer the inconvenience of clocks being adjusted twice a year at the Equinox. Is this an issue the European Parliament could address by abolishing this practice and also take the opportunity to get rid of the time differences throughout the EU?”

It was generally agreed that this was not an appropriate issue for the EU.
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Kathy Doughty asked “What is the candidates’ stance on health care, and do they support the introduction of safer needles for all procedures; what is their parties’ position on standardising care to best practice levels for specific conditions across Europe?

Catherine Bearder commented on the issue of safe needles – an important technical matter on which standards could be established. At a higher level the issue was the right to get good medical treatment in any EU country. Peter Skinner emphasised the importance of exchanging experience and good practice, and Caroline Lucas was concerned that there were still large differences in medical practice and pre-emptive medicine.

Bruce Smith asked “Are you satisfied with the way whistleblowers are treated in the EU and if not, what do you propose to do about improving the situation?”

Harry Aldridge told the story of Marta Andreassen, the second candidate on the UKIP list for the South-East, who had been sacked by EC Vice-President Neil Kinnock for whistleblowing on European Commission finances. She had been the chief accountant for the European Commission.

Caroline Lucas said that the Green group supported whistleblowing, though it would expect proper investigation. There was a clear need to abolish the culture of silence on issues of criticising corruption and misuse of EU funds. Catherine Bearder agreed that is was essential to build a culture of openness and freedom of information. A LibDem MP had recently exposed cases which now were before the serious fraud office. Richard Robinson said that informed criticism should be encouraged. Currently the mood was that any criticism of part of the EU was criticism of the whole project.

Five MEP candidates answer questions from the audience.

Catherine Bearder (LibDem) takes a turn at answering questions

Jonathan A Jaeger asked “Should the European Parliament have power to introduce draft legislation into the Parliament?”

There was general agreement that democratically elected representatives in the European Parliament should have a right currently exclusive to the unelected European Commission.

Peter Freeman asked “Is it possible (or legitimate) for one person to sit in both the European and the UK parliaments?”

It was agreed that this was not allowed. But there had been a case where a member of the UK House of Lords was allowed to suspend membership of the chamber for the period of being an MEP.

J Greig asked “Could the panel confirm that the EU is a democratic organisation, and if so why has the Irish ‘no’ vote in their referendum not been accepted?”

Caroline Lucas thought that neither the European Parliament nor the EU was yet sufficiently democratic. There was still an EU culture that was not democratically accountable.

Richard Robinson pointed out that once a Commissioner had been nominated by a national government that individual could not be changed for five years, while the nominating government could democratically be displaced.

On the question of voting Peter Skinner emphasised that casting a vote in the imminent European elections was essential to sustaining European democracy. Harry Aldridge quoted a BBC survey which had showed that 84% of the electorate wanted a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and that all parties had initially promised that. Yet it had not happened, neither in the UK nor in most other EU states.

Chairing the meeting, Jack Hazelgrove put a final question from those submitted to the candidates –
What was the most significant contribution the European Parliament has made to its constituent states?

Peter Skinner chose the ban on asbestos. The EU as a whole had actually been sued by the World Trade Organisation for imposing this, and had pursued the legislation to final appeal.

Caroline Lucas chose the EU agreement on climate change targets. The European Parliament had stubbornly prevented the European Commission from reducing the requirements. The EU could now take a leadership role in the next Copenhagen Convention, which would aim to replace the Kyoto protocol.

Catherine Bearder put her emphasis on peace. It was now more than 60 years since the second World War, and European nations had remained at peace. Europe had opened to welcome countries from the former Soviet bloc. The EU had been an effective forum for reconciling inter-state problems. Richard Robinson endorsed this perspective, saying the creation of the European Union had been one of a number of post-war initiatives, and in a comparatively short time had achieved an enormous opening up of Europe.

Harry Aldridge remained convinced that the main issue was that the EU had meant too much non-democratic legislative intervention.

Left to right on the stage:  

Catherine Bearder (LibDem),
Peter Skinner MEP (Labour),
Richard Robinson (Conservative),
Jack Hazelgrove (chair),
Sarah Leigh (European Movement),
Caroline Lucas (Green),
Harry Aldridge (UKIP) 

Panel of five MEP candidates set out their stalls

Peter Skinner MEP (Labour candidate)
Peter Skinner MEP

Keeping in touch

All the candidates affirmed their strong intention to keep in touch with the electorate and would love more input from constituents. Voters can monitor their activities through their individual websites and e-mail them. A common difficulty was to keep in touch with every part of this enormous constituency. Caroline Lucas mentioned how familiar with all the major railway stations in the region she was getting, often in the middle of the night.

Sarah Leigh, Chairman of the Sussex Branch of European Movement, suggested that people who had not had their questions answered should make use of the YouTube pages Questions for Europe, a joint project by Euronews and the International European Movement. Anyone could upload short video queries that will be answered by EP election candidates and others. Euronews intended to choose some of the most compelling questions and play the answers during Euronews' prime time television broadcasts up until 12 June.

Caroline Lucas MEP (Green party candidate)
Caroline Lucas MEP
and Harry Aldridge

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