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Britain’s Unsung Contributions to the European Parliament

Sir Graham Watson
Sir Graham Watson

The name of Alan Donnelly (Labour MEP 1989-1999), for example, is unfamiliar to many today; but this Member’s name is stamped just as firmly on the EU’s success in cutting noxious emissions from motor vehicles as is that of the more recently departed Chris Davies (Liberal Democrat MEP 1999-2014) on a major reform to make the Common Fisheries Policy more sustainable. And Britain’s women MEPs have been at least as influential as the men: the efforts of Caroline Jackson MEP to cut pollution from landfill waste, or the travails of Green MEP Jean Lambert (1999-present) to promote social inclusion and fight discrimination at work, are unsung but massively beneficial to EU citizens in the UK and on the continent alike.

Building a Liberal Europe The ALDE Project Book Cover
Graham Watson describes his time leading the Liberal group in the Parliament in Building a Liberal Europe: The ALDE Project.

Sir (later Lord) Henry Plumb became President of the European Parliament in 1987 and held the post for the then-customary two and a half years. Dame Pauline Green achieved the equally impressive heights of leading Parliament’s Socialist Group (1994-99). Among the many UK Committee Chairs and Vice Presidents of the Parliament (deputy Speakers) the names of Terry Wynn, Malcolm Harbour and Diana Wallis stand out. The prize for sheer longevity goes to Bill Newton-Dunn, who served from 1979 to 2015, though with a five year hiatus in the 1980s. Winnie Ewing long upheld the Scottish nationalist cause in Europe’s parliament, even if she wore a skirt rather than the kilt of her predecessor Russell Johnston in the pre-1979 appointed assembly. The UK’s two great combatants from Northern Ireland, John Hume and the Reverend Ian Paisley, famously found time out from their public wrangling at home to sip tea and chew the cud together in Strasbourg’s Members Bar, much facilitating the EU-funded peace process which has transformed the province. Among many dedicated and impressive UK officials, Sir Julian Priestley served ably and with great discretion as Parliament’s secretary general (its highest panjandrum) from 1997 to 2007.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage: the arch-enemy of the European Parliament, became by far the best known British MEP back in his own country. The constructive work of others was rarely reported.

Few of any of the above were given the coverage in the UK press or broadcasting media that their work deserved or would have attracted in other member states. What little limelight was available was devoted to elected MEPs who led parties not represented at Westminster, such as Caroline Lucas (Green 1999 to 2010) and Nigel Farage (UKIP 1999-present). Indeed, as I discovered, UK MEPs’ activities were better reported to readers, listeners and viewers in Germany, France and Italy than to those in the UK. Which is perhaps why many able but ambitious MEPs chose to move subsequently to Westminster and become Ministers (Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Geoff Hoon, Robert Goodwill, and Theresa Villiers among them) where they could better breathe the oxygen of publicity than in the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg obscured from UK view.

The UK’s contribution to the development and governance of a continent-wide parliamentary democracy is one of which the UK can be proud and for which the whole EU can be thankful.

Graham Watson was a Liberal Democrat MEP for the south west of England from 1994 to 2014. In the European Parliament he served as Chairman of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee (1999-2002), Leader of the EU-wide Liberal Democrat Group (2002-09) and Chairman of the Delegation for Relations with India (2009-14). He was knighted in 2011 and is now one of the UK’s representatives on the European Economic and Social Committee. Graham is the author of Building a Liberal Europe: The ALDE Project.

Editor: Eliot Scott-Faulkner

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