I am a self-declared, unapologetic Europhile. So I jumped at the chance of three days at the heart of the European Parliament. A busman’s holiday? Yep but another reason to like it. And spending a few days in the affable company of the very intelligent @MalcH, my fellow blogger over at Better Nation was a bonus.
Europe epitomizes my kinda politics. The art of the possible rules supreme. It’s all about constructing dialogue across competing interests and building a consensus. Sure, the pace of change might be slow and that could be frustrating. But in many respects, what goes on in the European Parliament represents the new politics Scotland was promised with devolution, though sadly it has failed to materialise.
And we continue to ignore what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg at our peril, especially now that MEPs have legislative powers. Our Scottish MEPs are intelligent, articulate and working damn hard on issues that matter to us and to everyone. Just no one seems to notice or care. Well, one thing the burd noticed is that they are very focused on policy: their knowledge, expertise and attention to detail was pretty awe-inspiring. And like every Scot abroad they take a keen interest in politics at home and have opinions that are nuanced by distance. Our politics is enhanced by their activity and frankly, they’d do well if any of them ever decided or was allowed to shift berths to Holyrood, in particular.
We’ve offered them guest blogging space and hopefully all of them will take up those offers. If they do, you’re in for a treat.
David Martin and Catherine Stihler offer a mutual counter-balance with different and varied interests. They sit in a very large grouping but still manage to shine. Catherine is focused especially on consumer interests – a cause dear to the burdz heart, seeing it’s about what people get out of what the policy wonks put in – and on matters like the Robin Hood tax, something domestic politicians have largely ignored. David Martin is involved in Scottish Labour’s review this summer, so that will be keeping him busy. He also hinted at some interesting views on our constitutional options that I hope he shares with a wider audience. As he pointed out, if you stay in politics long enough, everything comes around again. Too true.
Struan Stevenson mixes acutely Scottish matters like fishing with an interest in international causes and activity in far-flung places like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Unfashionable stuff but no less important on universal issues like human and constitutional rights. One thing we managed to extract from him – he is not a contender to be the next Conservative party leader in Scotland. Shame. But he also gave us his views on who might be potential runners and riders. He didn’t say as much but I picked up a lot of liking for John Lamont, whose consolidation in his seat despite a very strong challenge from the SNP’s Paul Wheelhouse must give him a head start on the also-rans on the list who failed yet again to gain a toehold in a constituency. (My view not his!)
Ian Hudghton has always been a likeable politician and he has thrived in Europe, so much so the burd wonders if he has discovered the secret of eternal youth. Not showy, just dedicated. A real highlight was being invited to his group’s lunch. Sitting down alongside Corsicans, Bretons, Welsh, Scots and Catalans was great fun. Being a leader involves leading yes, but it also involves facilitating, and taking time to foster a family atmosphere across a group of disparate interests is an important activity. It creates strong bonds and ties that bind for when the going gets rough. He’s a canny political operator whom I’d wish would develop more of an ego and not keep his talents hidden under his European bushel!
All of them were welcoming, hospitable and generous with their time – and victuals! I’m sure Malc won’t mind me speaking for him, when I express our sincere thanks to them for making our visit such a productive and pleasurable one.
An undoubted bonus for me was to meet London Labour MEP, Claude Moraes. I’ve been around politics long enough to recognise a star and he is definitely in that category. Again, he is more substance than show: there is a fierce intelligence allied with a thoughtfulness, even gentleness that you rarely get in domestic politics. His area of interest in home affairs, justice and civil liberties is fast-moving and chock full of developments that impact on our day-to-day lives. I hope to blog on some of them in the months to come, and help the good work that our MEPs are doing in this field reach a broader audience. It deserves to.
The travelling circus that is the monthly decamp to Strasbourg attracts criticism. At times, it felt like Malcolm and I were the only two folk glad to be there. It is hugely expensive and inconvenient to everyone involved at the Parliament. MEPs have to travel further and longer. Officials have to crate up and ship out spending half their week on the road or in rackety trains. Families largely get left behind in Brussels – no fun for employees who have young children in particular.
But the Strasbourg week does have its upside. Everyone is in the same position, captive without homes to go to. There are less external distractions, not least from lobbyists and all the other hingers on that go with a Parliament. Groups get time to spend together. The presence of European Commissioners, officials and Council of Europe folk enable cross-institutional dialogue. The pace – bizarrely – is frenetic. The Parliament is more accessible because people have more time for all things political and germane to their roles – especially if it involves a meeting with coffee in one of the bars – but it is also intense, starting early morning and lasting way into the evening.
I would imagine a lot of progress is made on tricky and tricksy negotiations and issues through the Strasbourg weeks as a result. To lose that would be to the detriment of the Parliament.