Planet European Parliament, billions of miles from reality
Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.
The European Parliament increasingly resembles the mirror universe from Alice Through the Looking Glass. When you step through those doors it's like you enter a parallel universe completely detached from reality.
Nothing summed this up better than a debate we had last week ahead of the EU's make-or-break summit next week.
For many of the single currency's strongest advocates, the types of proposals on the table now - a banking union, more power for the ECB, common debt instruments - were all envisaged as part of the inexorable march towards the U.S of Europe. I believe that this crisis highlights the failure of the euro - because it was a political project rather than an economic one. Federalists see it as a success because finally they will use the cover of fear to instigate the real objectives of a federal Europe.
Already, the people are rebelling against the ideas being forced upon them from above. Public confidence is at an all time low because the EU seeks to lecture people rather than listen to them. It seeks to advance its own cause rather than the taxpayers' and voters'.
Before me, the commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had set out some of his ideas - including a proposal for a so-called 'interinstitutional agreement' on economic growth. An IIA is agreed between the commission, parliament and council - usually on issues such as the budget. However, because such an agreement has to be adopted by all three institutions, its purpose will be meaningless as it is watered down and adapted to suit centre-right and socialist governments, federalists and anti-federalists alike. The result? Another meaningless piece of paper.
Barroso was followed by Joseph Daul of the EPP and Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberal group (which contains the UK LibDems). These two are fast turning into the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the mirror universe. Daul called on national governments to choose, "a strong political integration through the Community method?" Anybody wondering why we left the EPP need only watch his speech. Verhofstadt argued that, "Federal Europe' is not a buzzword, Federal Europe is the solution." The LibDem MEPs behind him - including Graham Watson - were beaming at his federalist effusion.
After I gave my speech, Watson intervened and asked a question. He ended by asking, "Does Mr Callanan not accept that if the European Union is to do this (get its act together) it will need an adequate budget to do so?"
So there you have it, the LibDems are clearly now in favour of increasing the EU's budget. This was shown during a vote later that day on a motion regarding the next EU seven-year budget. The LibDems voted against a Conservative motion drafted by Richard Ashworth, which reined in spending and protected the UK rebate. Instead they voted with the ALDE group for the resolution that had been tabled by the federalist groupings, calling for an end to the UK rebate, new EU taxes, and a 'robust' budget to deliver the EU's 'political goals'.
The resolution was intended to lay down a marker for the negotiations that are about to begin in earnest. With the parliament taking such an obstinate position, there is a real possibility that we will not have a new EU budget framework once the current one expires at the end of next year. If that were the case, we would continue with the current budget. For that to happen would not be the worst outcome, but it would mean our leaders would pass up another opportunity to reprioritise and radically reform EU spending.
Of course, the parliament is going to be the biggest roadblock to reform. Last week made me wonder whether national governments seriously regret the powers that they have bestowed on MEPs under successive treaties. In some areas those powers have been used to good effect. For example, under Malcolm Harbour's steer, it is the Parliament's Internal Market Committee which is driving the agenda forward on the single market.
However, in other committees, the extra powers have not been exercised responsibly. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of justice and home affairs. Almost as soon as the parliament was granted co-decision powers under Lisbon, MEPs already exercised them to block a major counter-terror financing agreement with the USA.
But last week saw the biggest display of childish bravado I have ever seen.
The fallout began the week before last when national governments discussed the proposed reforms to the Schengen agreement, which is now 20 years old and needs updating. One part of the new reforms is a so-called 'Evaluation Mechanism', which checks that governments are applying the Schengen rules correctly.
Every legislative proposal stems from an article in the EU treaties, what is called its 'legal base'. Most of these articles are co-decision, giving the parliament equal say. But there is still some scope in the 'Area of Freedom, Security and Justice' to make decisions intergovernmentally.
Ministers decided unanimously to alter the 'legal base' of the proposal from Article 77 to Article 70 - thus excluding MEPs from the decision-making process.
MEPs were furious at such an affront to the 'democratic' institution of the EU. Immediately they declared this to be an 'act of war' against the parliament. The EPP said that they would cut off all cooperation with the Danish government, which is currently presiding over the Council of Ministers. The socialists said they would immediately lodge a case with the European Court of Justice.
In a hastily called debate, our new MEP for the West Midlands, Anthea McIntyre, quite rightly told the MEPs to stop the childish tantrum and cool down. She also said that she has a great deal of sympathy with national governments who do not want to see the Schengen system governed entirely by Brussels, but instead want to have some (albeit limited) powers to reintroduce controls in extreme circumstances.
In the European Parliament, this is heresy. Any notion that national governments should have some control over their borders results in you being given no end of labels, some much ruder than others! Nevertheless, Anthea spoke fearlessly and eloquently and was the only voice of reason in an otherwise hysterical display.
A couple of days after this debate, I attended the Conference of Presidents. It's the parliament's main decision-making body, made up of the group leaders and the parliament's president. Clearly they still hadn't cooled down as they agreed that the parliament would freeze five important counter-terror and immigration files currently under negotiation, until it gets its way.
I spoke against this and pushed the matter to a vote arguing that, with such serious economic problems at the moment, do we really want to go to war over such an institutional wrangle - particularly as the public will almost certainly be on the side of the governments. Every other group leader voted to break off cooperation. UKIP's group co-leader, the Italian MEP Francesco Speroni, abstained, which I thought was an interesting position from a party that wants national governments to keep control of their borders.
Amongst the items that have been frozen are the Schengen package itself (as I said, it's 20 years old and out of touch with the 21st century), measures to strengthen cooperation regarding cyber attacks, and counter-terrorist proposals using Passenger Name Records (PNR) data given to airlines. The parliament recently agreed a PNR deal with the USA but it is now going to hold up creating its own internal system thanks to this dispute
. My colleague Timothy Kirkhope is the parliament's rapporteur (lead member) on the PNR proposals and he was not even consulted before his report was frozen. He reacted with scorn, saying that, "MEPs have, by their childish reaction, proved the governments' concerns as justified. If they are not capable of exercising their powers in a rational and responsible way is it any surprise that the council wants to sideline them?"
The European Parliament is supposed to represent the people in the EU. By giving it more powers, it was thought that the EU would gain more democratic legitimacy. Of course, we always argued that you cannot have a democracy without a demos, which does not exist at the European level. Which is why, every day, the European Parliament becomes a little bit more dogmatic, a little bit more ideological, and a great deal more out of touch with the people.