Wake up, Westminster! Why MPs should pay more attention to the EU

Wake up, Westminster! Why MPs should pay more attention to the EU

Opinion piece (British Influence)
17 July 2015

In his famous Bloomberg speech of January 2013, offering British voters a referendum on EU membership, David Cameron promised to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the EU. But are British parliamentarians up to the task? The Commons’ limited interest in European business suggest not.

The British parliament has been examining European matters for the last four decades. Every year both houses sift through more than a thousand EU documents that the government deposits with them. But European matters are not the bread and butter of parliamentary business. Although both houses of Parliament are involved in the scrutiny process there is a wide gap between MPs’ and Peers’ interest in EU matters. MPs often prefer to focus on the domestic agenda rather than the EU. As elected members of Parliament their priority is to address the concerns of their constituents. MPs doubt that their voters would reward them for spending time on getting acquainted with the ins and outs of the EU.

According to House of Commons statistics, the overall attendance rate for the EU scrutiny committee in the 2014- 2015 parliamentary session, until Parliament was dissolved, was 48.7 per cent. Some members of the committee did not attend a single meeting. The most enthusiastic members of the committee are eurosceptics, both Conservative and Labour, to whom it offers a platform for expressing their hostility to the EU.

Peers, on the other hand, have no constituency responsibilities and thus have more time to study European matters; members of the Lords EU select committee and its sub-committees have often worked for and with the EU institutions, which naturally gives them more understanding of how the EU operates. But MPs rarely take advantage of Peers’ expertise and talk to them about European business or co-ordinate an agreed parliamentary stance on legislative proposals from the European Commission.

Even if all MPs were interested in European matters, they would still need the government’s help to examine Britain’s European policy properly. The EU scrutiny committee in the House of Commons can request debates on European issues on the floor of the house, but the government can avoid scheduling them. Between January 2014 and February 2015 the government allocated time for only two out of eight debates that the committee requested.

There are several steps that Parliament and the government can take to improve Westminster's engagement with the EU. MPs should talk to their colleagues in the House of Lords more often about EU business, in order to benefit from their EU expertise. As well as having committees to scrutinise day-to-day EU documents, MPs and peers should establish a separate joint committee on the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe. As the renegotiation process gets underway such a committee would offer parliamentarians a platform to discuss both the desirability of David Cameron’s proposed reforms and the progress of the negotiations.

The House of Commons European scrutiny committee would work better if it were not a eurosceptics’ playground but had a better balance of pro- and anti-European MPs, looking at proposed EU legislation on its merits and without ideology. One positive step would be for the whole house to elect the committee’s chair, rather than just the members of the committee (as now).

The government for its part should allocate more time for discussion of EU issues. The prime minister should reinstate the tradition of holding plenary debates with MPs before he goes to the European Council. This would give parliamentarians a better idea of his negotiating stance and more opportunity to influence it.

The parliaments of a number of other EU member-states have more power in shaping their government’s EU policies than the British parliament does. That has nothing to do with diktats from Brussels; it comes down to ways of doing business rooted in the British parliamentary system. We must bear it in mind next time we hear eurosceptic MPs complaining that Brussels has deprived Westminster of its power to decide the country’s policies.