By Jonathan Isaby
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Of the 26 Tory MEPs elected at the June 2009 European election, six of their number were taking their seats in Brussels for the first time.
So, two years on, I thought it would be interesting to ask them all to reflect on their experiences to date with a series of questions which would allow them to explain the highs and lows of life as an MEP.
The sextet are: Vicky Ford (East of England), Ashey Fox (South West England), Julie Girling (South West England), Emma McClarkin (East Midlands), Kay Swinburne (Wales) and Marina Yannakoudakis (London).
They have generally found the Euroepan Union to be as bureaucratic as they feared, although most of them have positive things to say about their colleagues in the Euroepan Parliament.
Below is the first instalment of their answers…
1. Have any of your views about the EU changed after seeing its institutions work at close quarters?
Vicky Ford: My first impression of the EU institutions was one of considerable bureaucracy. This remains true, especially compared to the private sector. Until I had seen the legislative process first hand I had not realised how important the position of Council is – this is where each national government´s minister can amend and vote on legislation. Where a Westminster minister is actively involved, as well as our MEPs, we can reshape a piece of legislation. A good example of this was the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive - at one point this would have made it considerably more difficult for UK and other EU companies to access investment - the final text actually makes it easier for venture capital firms to invest across all of Europe.
Ashey Fox: I was genuinely surprised at the amount of attention the Commission pays to the Parliament and MEPs. I had expected them to ignore us, but my experience is very positive. To give but one example, one Commissioner agreed to meet me regarding a constituent's problem and has helped in sorting it out.
Julie Girling: Yes my views have changed… I was expecting a bureaucratic nightmare at the Commission, Parliament and Council and this has proved to be the case, but I have been appalled by the way that these institutions have only one direction of travel. Once a report is written at the Commission and proposed to parliament it takes on a life and momentum of its own. There are no effective mechanisms for pulling back or abandoning proposals. Any mechanisms that do exist are rarely, if ever, used. The lesson is "never start a ball rolling or suggest anything unless you are absolutely sure that you want it ".
Emma McClarkin: Having worked out in Brussels before getting elected I've had the chance to observe the institutions at close quarters for quite some time. It's what fired me up to come out here to do something about it. The scale of the Project scared me then and it still scares me now.
Kay Swinburne: Working on the derivatives legislation over the past 18 months has enabled me to participate in the legislative process in a technical field withe which I am familiar. Throughout I have worked co-operatively with senior Commission staff, EP colleagues accross political groups and the civil servants of many EU countries, and I am reassured that the process can be influenced significantly so that the final outcome, which in this case is a global ambition of the G20, will be a workable regulation. Changes we have helped influence have included a corporate exemption, special treatment for pension funds, improved collateral arrangments and investor protection.
M arina Yannakoudakis: I have realised that the institutions have not developed sufficiently to cope with enlargement. They are overly bureaucratic and costly, certainly not as effective as they ought to be. Looking at this with my business hat on, I can see precisely where the institutions could be made more efficient. In addition some committees need to be re-thought. For example, the Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee should now become the Equalities Committee to more accurately reflect the changes in society over the past 20 years.
2. Has anything surprised you?
Ashey Fox: The amount of power wielded by the leaders of the two largest Groups (EPP and S&D) and the extent to which they work very closely together. The Daul & Schultz show really does run this place – at the expense of not only the other political Groups but also individual MEPs in those Groups.
Julie Girling: I have been surprised at the sheer volume of work; keeping an eye on this, the goings-on in Brussels, is a mammoth task.
Emma McClarkin: Nothing in this place surprises me but the naivety of some of my colleagues still astounds me, as does the extent of their arrogance. As the only elected EU institution we have a responsibility to voice the concerns and deliver on the aspirations of our electors. It's amazing what some people will trade for a press release.
Kay Swinburne: I have been surprised and shocked at the quantity of financial legislation which is coming across my desk. As UK spokesman for Economic and Monetary Affairs and ECR coordinator, I have responsibility for over forty dossiers. Trying to ensure that none of these have a detrimental effect on the UK's position as a global financial centre is a huge on-going challenge. Unsurprisingly, the working time directive is not applicable in my office as the economic team of a smaller political group have to work harder, often through the night, to achieve the better outcomes we need.
Marina Yannakoudakis: The lack of interest and scrutiny by the British press in the flood of European directives and legislation originating in Brussels which directly affects the UK. Very little is reported about the work we do on pan-European issues such as controlling counterfeit medicines and people trafficking.
3. What has most impressed or depressed you?
Vicky Ford: The constant round trip to Strasbourg each month is deeply depressing. For older MEPs from the countries close to the Franco-German border, Strasbourg remains an important symbol of post-war reconciliation. However, today the Parliament there is symbolic of wasting taxpayers' money. In the past few months there have been two clear votes when the majority of the Parliament have signalled their support for one seat. However it would require unanimous approval by the 27 national governments. Strasbourg is a beautiful town but we don't need two parliaments. Probably the most depressing piece of EU craziness I have seen is the Chicken and the Egg story: ten years ago, EU countries agreed to outlaw tiny battery cages for hens. The law is due to be implemented by New Year's Day 2012. UK farmers and those from many other countries are ready – but many others are not. Latest figures suggest about 70 million eggs a day will be laid "illegally". It's depressing because firstly this legislation genuinely started in response to public concern, secondly because unilaterally agreeing welfare standards just in the UK has been a disaster for farmers in the past so international consensus is needed, but mostly because if the most simple issue of how to keep chickens isn't even implemented, then what hope is there for more complicated agreements? Readers, please start checking the labels on your eggs.
Ashey Fox: I have been impressed by the language skills of so many foreign MEPs. Several things have depressed me: firstly, the failure to deal with the EU´s accounts after so many years, and secondly, the constant talk of the need for the EU to have more money. I just don't understand how the Commission and so many MEPs cannot see the gross hypocrisy in demanding more money for the EU, whilst almost all the nation states are imposing austerity.
Julie Girling: I've been most impressed by the dedication of a lot of my colleagues and unimpressed by the contempt the institutions show for the people of Europe: for example. they tell us all to cut CO2 emissions, but insist on making us all travel to Strasbourg once a month; they call for European taxes but make sure that Eurocrats have dispensation to pay the lower EU income tax if they work in Brussels… I could go on.
Emma McClarkin: I have been most impressed by my new colleagues and partners in the ECR group who work with principles and passion. You can't focus on what makes you depressed out here otherwise you wouldn't get out of bed! Constantly winning arguments and losing votes is frustrating at times. But the prize for most depressing debate was about whether chicken was a meat and the font size on a packet of chewing gum. The EU's focus on the minutiae totally misses the bigger picture. There is a complete lack of common sense out here.
Kay Swinburne: The thing that has most impressed me is other MEPs' unfailing commitment to the 'European Project' – against all logical thought. Of course, that is also the thing that has most depressed me! Standing up for the UK in that context is a daily challenge.
Marina Yannakoudakis: I have been impressed by breadth of experience of so many MEPs and the quality of research carried out on all the topics I have been dealing with. A great deal of effort goes into seeking out and including the opinions of stakeholders' views.
The second instalment of their answers will follow later in the week.