At the speed of a charging train, the votes follow one another thick and fast. “Amendment 5/1 - votes in favour, votes against, abstentions, carried. Amendment 5/2 - votes in favour, votes against, abstentions, rejected.” Each vote takes around six seconds. I’ve not yet seen a voting session with more than a hundred votes, but seasoned colleagues tell me that they once had to vote 900 times in three days. The average is somewhere around 500.
This is how new laws are made in the European Parliament. No-one could understand the detail of all these votes, so instead they rely on voting lists prepared by teams of staff with a brief explanation of why they’re supposed to vote in a particular way.
As a new member of the European Parliament, the whole process seems undemocratic to me. We’re often voting on things that haven’t even been debated, and when something is ‘debated’ there’s no time for anything more than soundbites: microphones are often cut off after just 90 seconds.
This lack of debate wouldn’t happen in Westminster. But since the last General Election we’ve had only around 120 new Acts of Parliament compared with well over 3,500 new EU Regulations.
One brave new MEP, an Austrian if memory serves, spoke up saying that he couldn’t keep up with a new vote every few seconds. The President of the Parliament said that other MEPs would be late for their flights home or lunch if they didn’t vote so quickly, and got an enthusiastic round of applause from the Labour and Lib Dem groups.
The first time I spoke in debate was to raise the issue of youth unemployment in the North East. I must have been the only UKIP MEP ever to have had my speech praised in the Parliament by an EU Commissioner, an honour that I’m not entirely sure I’m proud of!
I argued that countries can learn from each other without large amounts of taxpayers’ cash being wasted sending it to Brussels, then applying to get some of it back again.
Maybe there’s something we can learn from Germany, where there’s no stigma attached to those who choose to go down a vocational route rather than going to university.
And perhaps the EU’s policy of unlimited immigration from the EU hits young people’s chances of getting jobs the hardest: experienced workers from Eastern Europe are often happy to work for minimum wage, so employers don’t always give our own young people their first chance to get on the career ladder.
Most MEPs don’t even bother to turn up for these debates, with row upon row of empty seats. Even when I spoke on the most serious issue facing the European Parliament, the ‘payments problem’ – a euphemism for the fact that the European Union is currently spending more money than it’s given by national governments in membership fees – the chamber was barely 10% full.
If the people of the North East could see for themselves the waste that goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg on a daily basis, they’d be appalled. But there is no real scrutiny out there, because it’s so remote from local people.
If they really wanted to save money, they could sort the ‘payments problem’ at will.
The EU doesn’t really need a bigger advertising budget than Coca Cola, and it certainly doesn’t need to transport the entire Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again once a month. They could scrap a lot of the luxuries for MEPs and certainly the foreign junkets (which UKIP MEPs refuse to take part in) would go.
They’re unwilling to do any of this, or to put their own house in order. After all, they have found a much simpler solution: ask us all to cough up more in our taxes to pay for it.
The Conservatives say that the European Union needs to be reformed. From what I’ve seen over there, the system is beyond the possibility of reform.
My best guess is that there are maybe 150 MEPs who genuinely want something to change, but our voices are drowned out by the other 600 who blindly ignore the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.