Hamish McRae: If only we cared about the European Parliament

Until people confront Europe's failure, things cannot change
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The Independent Online

Thursday's elections may have become a de facto referendum on our imploding government but what people are actually doing is electing some local councillors and, much more substantially, a new European parliament.

Europe is supposed to be important to us. A lot of our exports go there. It imposes a lot of regulations on us. And we pay a lot of money to remain members of the club – we are the second largest net contributor after Germany. But we seem hardly to care at all. If you don't believe that, try these two questions. Who is the Europe minister and who replaced Peter Mandelson as the British EU commissioner in charge of trade?

Don't know? Nor did I until I asked a colleague about the first (it is Caroline Flint) and saw the second speak at a conference last week (it is Baroness Ashton). As for naming your MEP, or indeed any MEP at all, well hardly anyone could manage that.

The normal reply to this is to say that as yet the European Parliament does not have much power, for that resides in the Commission. But that does not excuse my not knowing the name of the British commissioner. Most of us know more about the new Cabinet of President Obama than we do about the members of the European Commission.

Compare the way the US presidential election (in which most of us have no role) was covered with the way the European elections are covered. One was wall-to-wall; the other just about invisible. You might say that was the fault of the media but surely it was because one was utterly riveting and the other dead boring. There is a limit to the extent the media can risk boring their viewers and readers.

This is profoundly disturbing. Europe needs more competent leadership. Take a key economic yardstick. Just yesterday new figures came out for eurozone unemployment. They showed that 9.2 per cent of the workforce is out of a job, the worst figure since 1999. That is terrible. The comparable figure for the UK is 7.1 per cent, which is terrible too but let's hope we can recover more quickly, as we have in the past.

More broadly, European economic leadership has failed in its own cited aim under the Lisbon agenda. In 2000, Europe set out to "Make Europe, by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world". That aim was surely right but as it turned out Europe has not only slipped down the world league of large economies – something you might expect given the rapid ageing of its population, but failed to make its mark in those new knowledge-based industries.

Not one continental university is in the world top 20 and virtually all the dynamic innovations have been developed in the US. Unsurprisingly there are some 400,000 European science and technology graduates working in the States, taking advantage of the dynamism Europe has failed to match.

Of course there have been European innovative success stories. Schools in Finland remain the best in the world. Scandinavia remains a leader in online applications. But that makes our overall performance all the more depressing. It is not that we are stupid or lack innovative zeal. It must be the social and political structures and institutions of Europe that hold us back. It is a political problem in the widest sense.

So what is to be done? I suggest the first thing is to be honest with ourselves. There will be a new European parliament, new faces and one hopes new enthusiasm to try to help Europe lift its game. The most depressing thing in the past has been the reaction of many European politicians, when you point out the scale of Europe's failure. It is either to go into denial and claim that actually it is doing very well or make some displacement criticism of the US, perhaps about its crime or its healthcare system.

Now it may be that the new European parliament will simply turn out to be a repeat version of the old one. Power will continue to reside in the Commission and in national governments. It may be that European politicians are too diverse a bunch to do more than reflect national prejudices and objectives. But until people confront failure things cannot change.

We in the UK are having to confront the collective failure of UK political leadership right now and one of the tasks of the next UK parliament will be to rebuild trust in political institutions.

In the European parliament the trust has never really been there in the first place. Or if that sounds unfair, most European voters have not been sufficiently interested to bother about trusting or distrusting the institution and its people. The huge challenge for this new European parliament will be to make itself matter.