Ian Swanson: many faults but EU still important

Feelings continue to run high over Europe. Pic: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
Feelings continue to run high over Europe. Pic: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
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EUROPE is constantly in the headlines. If it’s not rows about an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, it’s the UK parties arguing about an in-out referendum or a blustering attack from Nigel Farage.

Feelings run high, it seems. Yet despite all the talk, today’s European Parliament elections are likely to see a dismal turnout.

Across the EU, the proportion of people bothering to vote has fallen steadily over the years and last time, in 2009, Scotland recorded the lowest turnout of any part of UK – just 28.5 per cent.

So why does no-one seem to care about the European elections?

It’s difficult for people to relate to a parliament of 751 members, none of whom are household names, which meets hundreds of miles away over the sea and is only rarely seen on TV. Mention the European Parliament to most people in Britain and the first thing they will think of is expenses scandals.

The parliament does not help itself with its bureaucratic processes and impenetrable language.

And anyone looking for examples of taxpayers’ money being wasted would find it hard to do better than the parliament’s constant flitting between Brussels and Strasbourg at vast and pointless expense.

Every month, MEPs and up to 3000 staff make a 440-mile round trip from Brussels to the “other home” of the parliament in the French city of 
Strasbourg to amend and vote on draft legislation. It costs £163 million a year. MEPs want to have a single location for the parliament, but the split arrangement is enshrined in the Edinburgh Agreement signed at the European summit hosted here in 1992 – and France will not agree to change it.

Then there’s the voting system for European elections, which does little to encourage interest. Scotland is treated as one big constituency with six MEPs to elect. But voters just put a cross next to the party of their choice, with the parties having already ranked their candidates in the order they will be elected.

Despite all these shortcomings, the fierce debate over how and on what conditions an independent Scotland could retain or renew its membership of the EU is testament to its importance.

The EU is the world’s largest single market and being part of it allows Scots to live, study or work in any member country.

It also allows countries to work together on dealing with environmental issues and tackling organised crime, terrorism, trafficking and money laundering.

And according to the EU’s long-term budget for 2014-20, Scotland will benefit from more than £5 billion of European funding.

The European Parliament used to be a fairly toothless institution, but has gradually increased its role and is now more powerful than many people realise.

While crucial decisions still depend on agreement being reached between the member states in the Council of Ministers, as much as 90 per cent of what the EU does also requires the parliament’s assent.

Election turnouts are in decline all round the world – even local council elections – where those voted into power are arguably closest to the voters and can have the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives.

But failing to vote in today’s poll is to miss a chance to help shape an institution which is an important influence on all our lives.