This article first appeared in The Journal print edition on 20/1/16
It’s never a good idea to have secrets as a politician so can I confess to having had a candle lit dinner in Strasbourg with Ian Duncan the Scottish Conservative MEP.
Why, I hear you ask, was I dining with a Tory? Well apart from the obvious point that most of us are friends with people who hold different political views, there was a very practical reason linked to how the parliament of the European Union works.
I have 750 fellow Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and between us we represent the 28 member states of the EU. It may seem a fairly large number but when you remember the House of Lords has 825 members and the Commons 650 making a total of 1,475 representing the UK’s population of 65 million then 751 MEPs representing the EU’s 750 million citizens seems reasonable number to me.
The UK is represented by 73 MEPs with UKIP, the Conservatives, and Labour having 22, 21 and 20 respectively.
The number of women MEPs is slowing increasing from 16% in 1979 to 37% today (noticeably more than the House of Commons). I am pleased to say the Socialist Group that I am a member of has 45% women.
The range of political views represented in the parliament is extremely diverse as a result of the fact that all countries use some form of proportional representation in their elections.
Consequently we have fascists and communists and everything in between, with the far right and the far left having around 7% of the seats each.
Most of us, 90%, also belong to one of the seven political groups that exist in the Parliament. The Green group make up 7% of the seats and the group that UKIP sit in, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, are also 7%. There are then two slightly bigger political groups, the Liberals known as ALDE, with 9% and the European Conservative and Reformist Group (ECR) with almost 10%, this being the group the British Conservative MEPs sit in.
There are then two noticeably larger political groups. The biggest group is the European People’s Party (EPP) also referred to as the Christian Democrats with 219 seats or 30%. The second largest group is the Socialists, where we Labour MEPs sit, with 190 seats or 25%.
Which brings us to one of the most interesting aspects of the EU parliament and the explanation of my candle lit dinner with a Conservative MEP. Even the largest political group, the EPP, don’t have anywhere near the necessary majority to win a vote in the parliament. To win a vote you have to work with other parties to build a majority. As a result, at its heart, the EU parliament works on consensus, it is not intrinsically adversarial. At Westminster the government normally has a working majority of MPs ie enough folk to win votes without having to persuade some of those on the other side of the House to join them.
This difference in approach between the two parliaments is reflected in the architecture of the two respective chambers. In the EU parliament we all sit in a hemicycle, roughly politically left to right as viewed from the presiding president’s chair. In the Westminster parliament the government sit on one side of the chamber and on the other side, at swords length, sit the opposition ie two sides, like a football match.
In the EU parliament you realise fairly quickly that an opponent on one issue is a possibly ally on a different issue next week; so don’t fall out with them today as you may want to work with them tomorrow.
So hopefully you now understand why part of my job is dinning with Tories; searching for the common ground, what do we agree on rather than what divides us. On this consensus can be built practical action in the parliament that hopefully benefits the people of the North East and the people of Scotland who Ian and I seek to serve.
Oh, by the way, we hadn’t intended it to be candle lit, that was a by-product of a power cut half way through our meal!