If we must hold European elections, don’t let apathy give extremists victory

My article for the Times on Friday April 12th regarding the European Elections

I hope we don’t have to hold European elections but if we do, then we should fight them positively from the centre ground and not give a platform to extremists. The list-based D’Hondt counting system used for these elections means that individual candidates can be elected with just a tiny handful of votes.

Ten years ago, European elections were held in the heat of the MP expenses scandal. Many voters chose to stay at home. As a result, two members of the British National Party were sent to Brussels to represent our country, even though less than three per cent of their electorate had voted for them. The abhorrent views of that party meant it refused membership to all those whose face was not white. I do not believe that type of extremist politics represents the views of the British public.

Having served as an MEP, I have seen how Britain has undervalued the role played by its European parliamentarians. We have paid a high price politically for this. Other countries have used membership of the European Parliament to strengthen ties between their national parliaments. They would encourage the best and the brightest of the next generation of future parliamentarians to stand in European elections, get experience in the European Parliament and make friends across the continent.

Often, these individuals then stood successfully in national elections and were quickly moved quickly into ministerial positions. They brought with them a network of contacts and allies in other European states and used this to leverage their own country’s influence in international discussions. It is no surprise that British ministers attending European meetings often found their counterparts all knew each other well.

By contrast the main parties in the UK political system have created barriers between our MPs and MEPs. Not a single British MEP moved from Brussels back to Westminster in the years between 2010 and 2017. We missed nearly a decade of networking opportunities.

As one of the largest countries in the EU, the UK has 73 seats in the European Parliament. MEPs have huge influence, especially over the fine detail of legislation. When they roll up their sleeves they can make a huge difference in fighting for significant changes to EU laws. British MEPs have led reforms of laws on financial services, modernised regulation of the automotive sector and championed environmental measures — all issues that are hugely important to our country.

However, Britain frequently punches below its weight in the European Parliament as many of our MEPs refuse to play any part in discussions of legislation. Fundamentally, in international discussions if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. During my eight years there I saw how the 24 Ukip MEPs turned up to hurl rude insults across the Chamber when the TV cameras were running but left empty chairs at key points in important negotiations.

Some say this set of European elections will be irrelevant as even if they go ahead the MEPs that are elected are unlikely to be in Brussels for more than a few weeks or months. But the decisions that are taken by those individuals will be important ones. They will be representing our country on an international stage at a crucial time in our history. Their electoral success will remain on their CVs in perpetuity.

If these elections do go ahead, I will urge people to turn up to the polling station and use their votes. Yes, we may be frustrated by the stalemate in Westminster, but if apathy gets its way then we risk legitimising extremism by our absence.