It has been an eventful year for me. Twelve months ago I was working for Christian Aid, a year later I am one of two Labour Members of the European Parliament (MEP) for the North East of England, along with Jude Kirton-Darling, and rather a lot happened in between.
One of the standard questions I am now asked is, 'What do you make of the European Parliament and the European Union?' To which I have developed a three-part response that follows the headings: the good, the bad and the ugly. Let's tackle them in reverse order so we can end on a note of festive cheer.
First the ugly: of the 751 MEPs there are a disturbingly large number of extremely right wing members of the Parliament, fascists to be frank. While May's European elections saw the defeat of the UK’s two fascist MEPs elsewhere, all over Europe, parties with similar nasty views to the BNP were winning seats under the proportional voting system of the EU. For instance Poland’s Congress of the New Right won four seats and their leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke MEP holds the following views: democracy is the worst form of government ever invented, we should return to rule by monarchs, women should not be allowed to vote and there is no documentary evidence to support the claim that Hitler knew anything about the holocaust. Ugly views by any standards but alas shared by many in the Parliament.
Now for the bad. One of the Congress of the New Right MEPs, Robert Iwaszkiewicz, has joined the political group in the Parliament led by Nigel Farage, that group being Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD). As well a presumably supporting the views of his party’s leader Korwin-Mikke, Iwaszkiewicz is on record as stating that, ‘most women would benefit from a good beating’. That Farage thinks Iwaszkiewicz is a suitable person to have in his political group, the EFDD, is clearly bad.
Let’s finish though on the good and there is a lot of it, way more than the ugly and the bad. The European Union now has 28 member states and it has played the central role in keeping the peace since the end of the Second World War. No state, on joining the EU has ever then gone to war against another member state. As Europeans we no longer kill each other in the huge numbers we did in the first half of the 20th Century. This is the greatest single achievement of the EU.
Other good news: my cousin from Whitely Bay now lives and works in Hungary and my nephew from Carlisle lives and works in Holland. My children will have the opportunity, if they wish, to study at the universities of any of the member states. Around one million British citizens are resident in Spain, many of them having retired there for the sun. Almost a further million Brits live elsewhere in the EU, with Ireland the second most popular country and France third. This freedom is well worth celebrating irrespective of whether you decide to make use of it.
It is of course a two way street and slightly more than 2 million of our fellow EU citizens have decided to come to work and live in the UK. This is also good news. A recent University College London report made it clear that EU immigrants contribute far more to the British economy as taxpayers and valued workers than they draw down in any form of benefits or health services.
Speaking of money, another good thing for our region is that we are a net beneficiary, in other words we get more money out than we put in. This is because the EU has always worked to try and lift up its poorer member states and its poorer regions. In the past Ireland, Spain and Portugal were major beneficiaries of EU funding, today it’s the countries of Eastern Europe, the newest members states. But in addition the less well off regions of the rich countries have also been supported, hence the North East has been and remains one of the few parts of the UK that is a clear financial winner.
Further good news results from the opportunity that the EU structures gives us to tackle Europe wide problems such as climate change and tax dodging. Both these major and pressing issues are way beyond the scope of even the bigger member states such as Germany, France or the UK, to solve on their own. Both problems involve making decisions that if taken in isolation at a country level could disadvantage that country in comparison to its neighbours. For instance if the UK were to crack down on a multi-national company headquartered in the UK and dodging its taxes that company could simply move to another EU member state. But if all 28 EU states were to crack down together and impose the same rules then they collectively have a big stick that bears the message, ‘Play by our EU rules or you won’t have access to the world’s largest and richest single market, the EU with its 500 million potential customers’.
So I end the year feeling positive that we have in the EU, despite its failings, a real force for good in the lives of its citizens including all of us here in the North East of England.