One of the consequences of the ongoing lack of British interest in the European Parliament is that the significant contribution of individual British MEPs, both to the work of the Parliament and to the EU as a whole, has been largely overlooked. I worked in a number of EP Committees, and this article examines the specific contribution of some British MEPs in those committees. A much wider survey should, however, also be carried out in the future.
In the early 1980s the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and Industrial Policy had, as its name implies, a very broad remit. However two of its key objectives were to strengthen the internal market and to push for greater monetary integration. British Conservative MEPs like Basil de Ferranti, Neil Balfour and Ben Patterson played central roles in both respects. They were very active members of the Kangaroo Intergroup for Free Movement and in seeking more effective EU standardisation. At the same time they were very cautious about unnecessary harmonisation and, where appropriate, pushed for alternative approaches such as mutual recognition of national standards. Most importantly of all they were among the most influential members in campaigning for a much more systematic and less ad hoc approach to completing the internal market, arguing that far too little progress had been achieved over the previous 25 years. In the longer term their efforts helped to lead to the 1992 Single Market Programme, with year by year proposals and targets in specific policy areas. British MEPs also contributed forcefully to the Economic Committee discussions on possible paths towards Economic and Monetary Union. Ironically, Jacques Delors, subsequently to be such an influential President of the European Commission in both of the above respects, was the first Chairman of the EP Economic Committee after the first direct elections. With British Labour MEPs being still predominantly Eurosceptic, he worked much more closely with British Conservative MEPs, many of whom admired him greatly!
By the early 1990’s Labour MEPs were playing a far more constructive role in the EP. The Parliament’s rapporteur of the Temporary Committee on German Unification was British Labour MEP Alan Donnelly. He had to steer a complex series of measures through the Parliament in a very short time, and was subsequently given special recognition by the German Government for his efforts. At the same time British MEPs were among the first to apply the new codecision procedure for EU legislation that had been introduced by the Maastricht Treaty. The first version of this procedure allowed, however, for a text to be adopted unilaterally by the Council unless Parliament were to reject it within 6 weeks by an absolute majority of its members. It was British Labour MEP Mel Read who was the EP rapporteur on the only occasion that the Council tried to impose its will in this way (on a proposal on voice telephony in 1994), and who persuaded the Parliament to override the Council’s position. The Council never attempted this again and the codecision procedure was later modified so that such a unilateral stance is no longer possible.
Another British Labour MEP, David Martin, still a member today, played a major role as rapporteur in helping to shape the EP position for two successive intergovernmental conferences which led to the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties. He was backed up on EU institutional reform by Richard Corbett, who later also became one of the key EP actors on procedures for EP scrutiny of secondary legislation (“comitology”) as well as on the reform of its own rules of procedure. Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff subsequently became one of the most active MEPs on all EU institutional matters.
A further committee on which British MEPs were particularly influential was the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety which was chaired for 15 years by British Labour MEP Ken Collins and for 5 years by Conservative MEP Caroline Jackson. I worked directly with the latter, who, in addition to leading the committee with the then heaviest legislative agenda of any EP Committee, was particularly keen on ensuring that existing EU legislation was working properly rather than just adopting new EU legislation. Backed up by other British MEPs, such as the Liberal Democrat Chris Davies, she helped to reform committee work practices such as by the introduction of question time in committee (much more interactive and effective than in plenary!) and implementation reports on problematic legislation.
She was also one of the first EP Committee chairmen to systematically attend informal Council meetings, so that much closer links were established between the EP and Environment and Health Ministers from all EU countries.
The above are just a few examples and give some idea of the range of roles and degree of influence of many British MEPs in the European Parliament’s committees, with other good examples in the areas of Budgets, Development (three out of the seven Co-Presidents of the ACP Assembly have been British) and Internal Market and Consumer Protection (all four Committee chairs have been British). The number of British rapporteurs and coordinators in committees has also been very high.
The work of British MEPs in committees has often been characterised by a pragmatic approach and attention to the need for careful scrutiny (“the devil is in the detail”). British MEPs have, of course, often been suspicious of rhetoric and of grand designs for the EU but this short survey has shown that they have also had ambitious objectives for the EU and been very constructive in improving the ways in which it works. It is clear that a much more systematic examination of the role and influence of British MEPs in committees and delegations (there have been 33 British Committee chairs since direct elections!), within political groups and within the European Parliament in general now needs to be carried out, not least to ensure that their very real contribution is properly recognised, whatever the future of relations between the UK and the European Union.
Francis Brendan Jacobs was a European Parliament committee official from 1979-2006 and Head of the European Parliament Information Office in Ireland from 2006 until his retirement earlier this year. He has contributed to numerous scholarly publications and conferences over the years, in addition to his co-authorship of all nine editions of The European Parliament.
Editor: Eliot Scott-Faulkner