In its crudest, most regrettable form, the question being asked of voters ahead of tomorrow’s European Parliament election is this: are you worried about the possibility of a Romanian family moving in next door? The data shows that only a vanishingly small percentage of the country would find themselves in that position (the number of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania in the workforce in fact dropped since restrictions were lifted last year). But that is the prospect that Nigel Farage has highlighted in order to scare up the anti-immigration, anti-EU vote.
It is alarming that such tactics may well work, given the rather hazy understanding in the broader electorate of what exactly the EU Parliament gets up to in Strasbourg. It is possible that a large proportion of voters will mark their ballot paper tomorrow – in both the European and council elections – to reflect their feelings not about issues that MEPs and local councillors can address, but about the performance of the national parties since 2010. Given the volume of national political bickering in this country, and the relatively muted EU and local campaigning, this is perhaps understandable. But these are crucial elections in their own right.
The democratic legitimacy of Europe’s Parliament has been on the wane since its first election in 1979, with EU-wide voter turnout tomorrow expected to fall below the 43 per cent of five years ago. Meanwhile, Ukip is not the only party encouraging those who do show up to snub the very principle of a European Union: in eight of the 28 member states – including three founding members of the EU in France, the Netherlands and Italy – populists and far-right parties are in the running for a top-two finish. Low voter turnout will only play into the hands of such rejectionists, who, if they turn up in Parliament at all, can be expected to offer little but obstruction and expenses claims.
There is, however, no question that the EU needs reform. The union began life as an historic attempt to bring advanced nations together through economic ties. More recently, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it has encroached on the political sovereignty of nation states – which remain the most workable units of global order.
Both David Cameron and, to a far lesser degree, Ed Miliband, have talked of drawing back power, particularly in the areas of welfare policy and employment rules. A UK whose MEPs do not seek to undermine the European project at every turn is one better placed to engage in such discussions. (Scepticism is welcome in the right places – the Parliament’s expenses gravy train, for one, deserves a proper inspection.)
Yet some of the largest and most complex contemporary problems require trans-national political responses – and the European Parliament has great influence on the European Commission, the civil service body which puts together EU law. Following the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the head of the Commission will need to be vouched for by the Parliament, where previously the decision was solely down to national governments who make up the European Council.
In their plenary sessions, MEPs will also have a say on cross-border issues from finance to terrorism to migration policy. Some 90 per cent of what the EU does must run through Strasbourg. On climate change, for example, the UK’s 73 MEPs will influence the level at which future EU emissions targets are set. Quite simply the Parliament is more powerful than most national legislatures. A vote for a candidate who promises properly to engage with it is a vote that recognises the inter-connected nature of progressive European society.
That said, for many voters, the council election will have a more observable effect on day-to-day life. The temptation to use a vote to strike out at the Coalition or Labour’s recent record should again be resisted, and the focus kept local. The time for a referendum on Messrs Cameron, Miliband and co awaits in 2015.