Peter Hoskin

From the archives: Cut off in Brussels

From the archives: Cut off in Brussels
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Let's end the working week how it began: with talk of a European referendum. The talk, in this case, is provided by Daniel Hannan, who wrote an article for us in 2008 about his efforts to promote a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty from within the European Parliament. Here it is, our latest excavation from the Spectator archives:

For MEPs, public opinion is merely an inconvenience, Daniel Hannan, The Spectator, 22 November 2008

I’ve just done the most pointless thing an MEP can do: I’ve delivered a speech to the European Parliament. Actually, ‘speech’ is rather a grand word for my little soliloquy which, under the rules, had to be squeezed into 60 seconds. In general, only party leaders get more than two minutes, which means that no one has time to develop an argument or respond to other speakers. What Euro MPs call ‘debates’ are really exercises in speed-reading press releases.

So why did I bother? Partly because I wanted to remind my Euro-integrationist colleagues that theirs was not the only point of view. The subject under discussion was the restitution of the EU’s national symbols: its public holiday, anthem, flag and motto. The removal of these emblems had been the sole change made when the European constitution was resurrected as the Lisbon Treaty. Now, MEPs were voting to put them back in and, indeed, to give them greater exposure than ever. The EU’s ‘national anthem’, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, will henceforth be played whenever the European Parliament meets in solemn session, with MEPs being expected to stand to attention. (Not me: I’ll be writhing around like Alex in A Clockwork Orange screaming: ‘It’s a sin! It’s a sin using Ludwig Van like that!’) Someone, I felt, ought to remind the federalist majority that these trappings of statehood had been rejected in referendums.

But that wasn’t my sole motive. The truth is that, even after nine years in this job, I can’t shake off a residual Anglo-Saxon sense that what is said in a parliamentary chamber ought to matter. As Enoch Powell put it: ‘Parliament is a word of magic and power in this country.’

The idea that laws should be made by a representative assembly was perhaps Britain’s supreme contribution to the happiness of mankind. Never mind that much of Westminster was built after the second world war, or that its traditions date largely from the 19th century. Parliament is layered with the accreted authority of 800 years. Even radical MPs have a sense that they are passing through an institution bigger than they are.

Few MEPs have such a sense. The European Parliament has existed only since 1958, and has been directly elected only since 1979. Turnout has declined at every election since then, giving MEPs an uneasy sense that, if their institution were to be vaporised by a meteor, hardly anyone would care. This makes them insecure, which in turn makes them tetchy. Since they can’t openly express their anger at their Eurosceptic electorates, they take it out on the handful of dissidents in their own ranks.

Earlier this year, I and a small group of souverainiste MEPs protested against the cancellation of the referendums by making our one-minute speeches in relay. Inspired by Cato the Elder, I ended every intervention, whatever its subject, with a call for the Lisbon Treaty to be put to the vote: Pactio olisipiensis censenda est. ‘Filibuster’ would be too grandiose a name for our exercise: we numbered no more than 40 out of 785 MEPs, and were limited to 60 seconds each. The worst we could do was to delay the vote, and perhaps keep members from their lunch for half an hour. Yet our little gesture sent the authorities into a slavering fury. The speaker announced that he would simply refuse to take interventions from people he thought were acting from improper motives. He didn’t bother to change the rules to give himself this power; he simply ignored them.

We responded in the next session by holding up banners carrying the word ‘referendum’, the sight of which maddened the house, for people are rarely so angry as when they feel secretly guilty. Several Eurosceptic MEPs were fined — something that has never happened in all the time I’ve been here, even though there are monthly demonstrations in the chamber about one thing or another.

Then again, no one pretends that the rules are applied impartially. Goody-goody Europhiles can get away with a great deal, including abuse of their expenses. But when an Austrian Eurosceptic made himself unpopular by photographing MEPs collecting their attendance allowances without attending any meetings, he was fined thousands of euros for, in effect, filling in a form incorrectly.

And here we reach the terrible truth: the European Parliament despises the people it notionally represents. MEPs see it as their primary job, not to represent their constituents in Brussels, but to represent Brussels in their constituencies. They regard public opinion as an obstacle to overcome rather than a reason to change direction.

As so often, Edmund Burke’s writings apply with eerie aptness to our present discontents. Appalled by the pretensions of France’s revolutionary assembly — its belief that it was bigger than the law, its readiness to make up the rules as it went along, its perverse fear of the masses — he wrote these words: ‘Who that admires, and from the heart is attached, to true national parliaments but must turn in horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque and parody of that sacred institution.’ I tried to quote that passage when the speaker announced that he would no longer accept interventions from people he didn’t like. Needless to say, he cut me off.