I never thought I’d become a politician but Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit changed my mind. As a result, I decided to stand as a Brexit party candidate and, in May, I was elected as an MEP for London. For someone with no political experience, the weeks since have been surreal. Yet the strangest moment so far came last week, when my fellow Brexit party members and I travelled to Strasbourg for the inaugural meeting of the European parliament. My experience there has convinced me that Britain is right to leave the EU.
Even travelling to Strasbourg seemed slightly strange. After all, what is wrong with the perfectly good parliamentary building in Brussels? This being the EU, there is no straightforward answer to this question. The EU’s website offers few clues, pointing out that this arrangement is because of a treaty, without saying why the decision to meet there actually came about.
But regardless of the reason why, every month all MEPs, their staff, parliamentary staff and a whole load of baggage moves from Brussels to Strasbourg and back. This charade comes at the cost of £97 million per annum – a sum which the EU is dismissive of (the website says that while this is a ‘significant amount’ it ‘corresponds to just six per cent of the Parliament’s budget’. So that’s alright then).
Another surprise of my new job is how little time is actually taken up in parliament itself. MPs in Britain might enjoy long holidays (during which time they are expected to deal with issues from constituents) but when parliament is in session, the hours in Westminster are gruelling and the days long.
It’s hard to say the same about the European parliament, which meets for only around four days a month. All of its business – to the extent it has any – is conducted in this time. The annual salary (£94,000) and other direct costs of MEPs amounts to hundreds of thousands of euros a year. The few days that the parliament meets make it difficult to believe that the institution is indispensable. So what is its purpose? Seeing the waste of taxpayers’ money for myself has been a depressing eye opener.
Of course, at that cost you might reasonably assume that MEPs fulfil a rather important function. For the life of me I cannot establish what it is.
Parliament is not entitled to perform the most basic functions of a legislative chamber. It cannot initiate legislation. Neither can it move to have legislation repealed. In all practical terms it cannot block legislation, some of which bypasses it anyway. The EU parliament is unlike any national assembly with which you might be familiar.
What’s more, it is not even really a talking chamber. MEPs are limited to one minute of speaking each month and in order to speak they typically must apply in advance (some MEPs are selected if they can catch the eye of the president, but in such a big chamber, this is difficult).
What sort of democratic chamber is that? At the very least you might expect MEPs to debate with each other so that bad legislation can be exposed. Yet the time restriction gives few opportunities for this to actually happen.
Perhaps this time restriction on speaking is required so that formal business can be concluded in the few days that the parliament meets each month. But the result is that this is an institution which falls short of its remit to legitimately debate legislation.
Even when the parliament does meet, the sessions can be short. On my first day in parliament last week, we convened to elect its president for the forthcoming five-year term. But because the heads of state had not then concluded their negotiations over the next heads of the commission and ECB, the vote for the president of parliament was also delayed. As a result, my first day in Parliament lasted just 12 minutes, during which time the substantive business undertaken was the playing of the EU’s supranational anthem: Ode to Joy by Beethoven.
Brexit party MEPs had intended to remain seated during the anthem as a protest to the EU’s legitimacy and the trappings of state which it exhibits. We were not the only MEPs to do so. But when we were admonished for remaining seated, we had no option but to stand.
As a result, we did so with our backs to parliament. This protest resulted in a storm of criticism and there has been much hoo-ha about the lack of respect shown. But we would repeat this protest in a heartbeat. The EU parliament has no real function, costs a fortune and seems to exist only to serve those who are elected to it. It deserves nothing but our contempt.
Ben Habib is Brexit party MEP for London