Time to influence the debate on Europe

The EU divides opinion but whatever your views it is important to have your say — through voting in the May election and joining in the Citizens’ Dialogue events around Europe

Europe is high on the political agenda in the UK. However, in the past it has failed to motivate the electorate, with only one in three Brits casting a vote in the last European Parliamentary elections.

President Barroso used his 2013 State of the Union address to encourage more of us to be part of the debate, saying: “If you do not like Europe as it is: improve it!”

“The proportional voting system means every vote counts, no matter who you vote for,” says Violeta Vajda, a lead candidate for the Green Party in the European elections.

While Claude Moraes, MEP and deputy leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament, adds: “Perhaps the most important right you have as an EU citizen is the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament — it is important to exercise this right as the legislation made in Brussels directly affects the rights you enjoy as an EU citizen.”

Nigel Farage leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has called this May’s vote “the most significant Euro election ever in this country because at last we are discussing Europe and immigration”.

While the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has admitted his party is facing a “real uphill struggle” going into the EU election, his message to voters has been upbeat: “Our jobs, our livelihoods, our security and our climate all depend on Britain’s membership of the European Union.”

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have pledged to hold an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017 if they win the next general election in 2015, with Tory MP Liam Fox telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is only one party in the country that can guarantee a referendum on Europe and that is the Conservative party,” adding that voters will see the “European elections as a referendum on a referendum”.

Business groups are also campaigning to influence opinion. Adam Nathan, director of pro-EU pressure group British Influence says: “Before the Single Market, countless British goods were banned from European markets — we could not sell beer to Germany, we could not sell chocolate almost anywhere, and this was the same for many goods. Now we have a right to sell our products into a market of 500 million consumers, which is growing every day and also expanding outside of Europe through trade deals.”

Whichever view you agree or disagree with, it is important to have your say. The next elections to the European Parliament take place on May 22. The elections matter, not only because MEPs pass laws that affect many aspects of our lives, but also because the results of the elections will be key to deciding who will be the next president of the European Commission.

How you can influence the debate

Citizens’ Dialogue, February 10,

Royal Institution, 21 Albemarle Street, W1

European Commission vice-president and commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship Viviane Reding will debate with more than 400 people from all walks of life as part of a series of more than 50 public meetings across the EU. Subjects to be covered will include the future of the European Union, how the organisation can tackle the ongoing economic crisis in the eurozone and your rights as a citizen of the EU.

Tickets go on sale today. Find out more HERE.

European parliamentary elections, May 22

You have to be over 18 and registered to vote to cast a ballot. EU citizens resident in the UK can vote provided they are registered and have filled in an additional European Parliament voter registration form declaring they are voting in the European elections in the UK only, rather than in their country of origin (you are not allowed to vote in two countries). If you are registered to vote, your local council should send you the form automatically — if not visit electoralcommission.org.uk.

British citizens living abroad can also vote — for up to 15 years after they have left the country. Find out more at aboutmyvote.co.uk.

The EU and you: What being a citizen means

Built into EU treaties 20 years ago, EU citizenship gives you specific rights under EU law including:

■ The right to move and reside freely within the EU.

■ The right not to be discriminated against on grounds of your nationality.

■ The right to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal and European Parliament elections wherever you live in the EU.

■ The right to be assisted by another EU country’s embassy or consulate outside the EU if your own country is not represented.

■ The right to petition the European Parliament, apply to the European Ombudsman and contact the EU institutions.

■ The right to organise or support, together with other EU citizens, a citizens’ initiative to call for new EU legislation.

Join the debate on citizens’ rights by taking our reader survey on Europe HERE.

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