I have enjoyed my first fortnight back as a civilian after my temporary stint as an MEP. Along with other Brexit party representatives, we had one job, and we did it. I am rather proud of my modest contribution to bringing democracy home.
Looking back at my experience as an MEP, there are lessons worth noting. I had assumed that a gathering of 700 or so MEPs from all around Europe, would, at the very least, provide a fascinating exchange of views from an international perspective. But the parliament operates through artificially federalised political groupings; behind closed doors the leaders of each grouping carve up who gets to speak, for how long (typically 60 seconds), and in stage-managed terms.
Topics for discussion are similarly preordained, prescribed by legislation initiated elsewhere. There are few opportunities for actual free discussion, so very few listen to each others’ speeches. The chamber is regularly empty save for a lone voice and the chairpersons. Interaction is reduced to a formulaic blue card system for asking questions, which in too many debates are ruled inadmissible due to time restraints and fiat. No wonder the parliamentary chamber is only full when voting takes place; because financial penalties operate if you don’t turn up for a minimum number of votes per year.
But it’s not just the technical process that so deadens debate. Without accountability to voters back home, the atmosphere is one of a feudal court with MEPs forced to vie for favours. Interactions with other organisations are often confined to professional lobbyists. European civil society and NGOs that petition for favours and influence for their special interests are often themselves funded from EU coffers. This creates a system of patronage that encourages self-reinforcing group-think and a cloying sycophancy.
It has to be said that one of the most impressive aspects of the parliament are the brilliant unsung translators, who ensure that whatever language you speak, you are understood. Ironically, the Lingua Franca is jargon and bureaucratic wokeness. Everyone bangs on about diversity except diversity of opinion. So whatever is being discussed, the outcome must always be further and deeper integration into the EU project. And while it is estimated that EU sceptics now represent a quarter of seats in the European parliament, a behind-the-scenes cordon sanitaire has been erected by the main political groups to ensure they are shut out of positions of influence.
One issue that is likely to shatter the consensus has been Brexit. There was a strange atmosphere in the European parliament in the weeks leading up to 31 January. Not quite the end of days, but there’s no doubt Brexit got everyone thinking about the future. A mood of jolting reflection was prompted by the knowledge that if the UK can survive – even thrive – outside the EU, Eurosceptic public opinion in some other member states could also grow.
The shift was reflected in a distinct change in attitudes to Brexit party MEPs. Regardless of winning the European elections and the support of millions of British voters, during our seven-month tenure the majority of mainstream MEPs from the other 27 member states were almost universally disdainful.
But in the final weeks, that hostility ebbed away. (Admittedly, amongst the UK Remainer contingent it got worse and more vicious). When we arrived, it was common to hear Europeans trotting out the line that the British public had been duped (and probably regretted their decision), or that the British working class and the UK was on the brink of fascism.
Lib Dems and Labour MEPs of course fanned the flames of these untruths, while Brexit party MEPs worked hard in committees and parliamentary plenaries to counter this misinformation and appealed to fellow democrats across Europe – and there are many – to make the case for national sovereignty and the defence of democracy.
So it was lovely that, towards the end, so many MEPs – from left and right and from countries right across the continent – approached me, shook my hand and wanted to chat.
It seems the inevitability of Brexit helped them relax a little. Some complimented our group for making them see another side of Brexit. Others admitted that while disagreeing with us, they admired our dogged coherence as a group. Many found our contributions well-informed and useful. One MEP said he and colleagues had been plotting together on how to make the spirit of Brexit come alive in other countries across Europe. Another said she was determined to take inspiration from Brexit party speeches to try and kick-start a livelier debate in what is a dull and technocratic institution.
One thing we can be sure of is that Brexit will leave its mark on the EU. Indeed, the European Commission’s proposal for a two year-long conference (that’s right, a two-year long conference!) on the Future of Europe is specifically designed to counter the damaging impact of a “Brexodus”.
In my final session at the Strasbourg parliament it was surreal how almost every contribution referred to the “lessons of Brexit”, and stressed the alienation of EU institutions from rank and file citizens throughout the continent.
I was heartened at the prospect of an initiative that self-consciously presented itself as a necessary way of improving relations between EU institutions and its various nations’ citizens. In fact, commissioners and the most senior MEPs explicitly acknowledged that the initiative is an attempt to counter the kind of alienation and distrust of Brussels that fuelled Britain’s decision to leave.
Sadly, it seems it is an attempt to keep members’ signed up, rather than responding to their critical dissent. As always, despite best intentions, it seems the EU’s antipathy to real debate, its self-perpetuation and its strangulated relationship with real democratic decision-making is a ploy rather than a meaningful engagement with everyday reality.
The Future of Europe conference is supposed to be 'a bottom-up exercise where European citizens' voices contribute to the debate. Participation will take the form of six citizens’ assemblies – agoras – each made up of 200 to 300 randomly selected participants, demographically representative of the wider population.
Already there are rows about the selection. Some are unhappy these representatives will only be selected from European trade unions and employers’ organisations, such as BusinessEurope. This internal selection process matters. Presumably, leaders of the Gilet jaunes, who are so committed to active citizenship that they wear yellow jackets emblazoned with the slogan RIC (référendum d’initiative citoyenne citizens’ initiative referendum), will not find a seat at the agora. The wrong kind of citizens! Chicanery aside, can 1800 handpicked people really be able to represent the views of half-a-billion citizens living in 27 member states?
In the European parliament debate, it became clear this was not an exercise in trusting citizens to speak freely. Instead citizens will have to go through “preparatory sessions from well-established civil society organisations and other experts”. Of course, it is likely to be EU bureaucrats who decide what constitutes ‘expertise’, and which ‘experts’ will be invited to speak. And while the conference promises to gather citizens’ feedback and views through conferences, panels, multilingual websites and debates, presumably not all views are allowed.
When the parliament voted on proposed amendments, suggestions such as “this conference is a chance for fundamental debate on the EU” and it “should be an open process without any predefined conclusions”, were voted down. So was “treaty change must be put to referenda”. It seems then these citizens assemblies are little more than a democratic veneer using a manipulated, tightly-controlled stage army to back up agendas that EU politicians have already decided on. (I spoke on this at the EP here). The announcement that arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt has been put in charge of the initiative was the last straw. It certainly bodes badly for the notion that the EU is going to learn lessons any time soon, or that the conference will offer any possible reimagining of the future of Europe in favour of more democracy.
All the talk of listening to citizens rings hollow when actually-existing, real-life citizen’s views are ignored, or demonised. The EU’s original attitude to Brexit is an example. But what about the Polish and Hungarian electorates, whose democratically-elected politicians are presently being disciplined for not falling into line with top-down European values that go against their manifesto promises at home?
I am not complacent – finger-pointing at Brussels from London should be discouraged from now on. Bringing democracy home does not mean debate will suddenly be ignited here, or that the democratic promise of ‘taking back control’ will automatically happen. While the electorate have done a good job of reminding politicians on all sides that their authority is derived from citizens, we have any number of examples of our own home-grown democratic deficits.
Whether it’s the abundance of unelected officials, NGOs and major institutions that continue to have undue influence over political life. Institutions without accountability, First Past the Post, lobbyists, etc excuse Parliament from truly representing the electorate. Local government, which should be a vehicle that allows local voices to be heard, often remains divorced from its voters.
The EU’s favoured Citizen’s Assembly model with all its weaknesses is one our own politicians increasingly favour. One of the big post-Brexit government’s initiatives is its commissioned Citizen Assembly on climate change; over four weekends, 110 members of the general public listen to lectures from experts, and will be used to inform the debate on how the government should meet its climate targets by 2050.
Rather than contrive an assembly of selected public representatives, I would prefer we simply opened the floodgates to more genuine public conversations. This will require us to become more liberal in listening to each other. We must also make a firm commitment to free speech, so that we don’t close down debate on difficult issues. We must create more arenas that encourage people to think out loud, and experiment with ideas collectively for tackling the challenges ahead. In this spirit, myself and my Brexit party colleague Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen have organised one last venture as MEPs. It is an open conference in Stockport on Saturday 29 February
I promised when elected back in May, that a month after we left the EU, I would facilitate a get-together to ask 'What Next?' and try and kick-start a frank and open exchange of views on how we can “change politics for good”. It will be cross-party, open to everyone and anyone; a real citizens’ assembly. More town-hall gatherings like this could ensure that democracy becomes more than a cross on a ballot paper. And in the end, that is a Brexit dividend that all citizens – whether Leave or Remain – can hopefully embrace.