Returning to the playground

A year ago today, I took my seat as an MEP following the European elections. I commented at the time how similar it all felt to the first day back at school, with a few new pupils wandering the corridors in confusion, various playground manoeuvrings about who would end up in which gang, and everyone anxious to find out who their new classmates would be.

One year on, as you’d expect, things have settled down somewhat — though the European Parliament never ceases to be an interesting place to work! We’re all getting used to the individual styles and quirks of our colleagues, and I for one have had to do plenty of homework to get my head around the new subjects I’ve been assigned to study.

Some things have changed, and not all for the better. I reported a year ago that the far-right element of Parliament had failed to muster enough allies to form their own formal political group at the outset. Sadly, just a couple of weeks ago they finally succeeded in doing this, thanks to an alliance with a disgraced UKIP MEP: Janice Atkinson has now become the new group’s vice-president so they can reach the threshold of members from seven different countries, meaning they can form a formal ‘political group’ and benefit from Parliament’s financial and infrastructure support. The people of the South East of England now have to suffer the ignominy of seeing one of their representatives, elected for UKIP, marching under a National Front banner. Although it’s hardly the first connection between the two organisations, it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Speaking of UKIP — some things are the same as ever. Rather than engaging in serious debate, UKIP’s main tactic continues to be a series of tiresome schoolboy pranks with the sole aim of disrupting the work of those around them. A couple of weeks ago saw the most recent example. Having discovered a rule that allows a parliamentary group to request a parliamentary sitting to be suspended — a rule that’s intended to allow time for colleagues to hold emergency discussions if the terms of a debate change unexpectedly — they tried to use this to hold the parliament to ransom, rushing their MEPs into the chamber unexpectedly to disrupt a debate on the situation in Burundi for the sole purpose of causing maximum annoyance to everyone else.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are getting on with the jobs we were elected to do: representing our constituents in the European decision-making process. The last year has seen some important successes — on conflict minerals, car safety, mobile roaming costs — as well as some ongoing frustrations — directory scams, environmental standards — and some battles yet to be won — VAT for small businesses, fighting tax evasion, not forgetting the draft EU-US trade deal. The work continues.

One final thing that’s struck me over the past year is how many more individual members of the public are taking an interest in the work of the European Parliament. My Labour colleagues and I have noticed a sharp and continuing increase in the representations we receive from civil society organisations, grassroots campaign groups and individual constituents on a wide variety of important issues that MEPs tackle every day. Of course, we always welcome the chance to have these conversations, but the increase in constructive engagement is particularly reassuring in an atmosphere where the right-wing media ridicules the EU daily, and even our own government seems to have a conspiracy of silence over anything Europe-related except the crudest caricatures.

So, if you have taken the time to contact your MEP in the past twelve months, thank you — and please do keep in touch!

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