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The UK’s Legacy in the European Parliament

Martin Westlake, former Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee (2008-2013), looks back at the UK’s disproportionately large influence on the European Parliament since the first direct elections were held in 1979.

Portrait photo of Martin Westlake gazing upwards
Martin Westlake

Until proportional representation (PR) was introduced for European elections in the UK in 1999, British representation in the European Parliament was characterised by, and criticised for, over-representation in one way or another. This was firstly with the Conservatives, from 1979 through to 1989, and later Labour, once Neil Kinnock’s party had fully embraced the European integration cause in 1989. Such ‘distortions’, critics argued, enabled ‘the British’ to wield more influence than was their right, whether through the creation of a separate Group (the Conservatives’ European Democratic Group) or undue weight within a Group (Labour within the Party of European Socialists). But such criticism, together with the UK’s notoriously low and decreasing turnout, overshadowed the fact that British members of the European Parliament have made significant and much-admired contributions to the Parliament’s life since the first direct elections were held in June 1979, including various leadership positions and important rapporteurships. The bitter-sweet truth is that in the Parliament, as in the Council, Coreper and the European Commission, the British have frequently punched above their weight.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn and Martin Westlake
Martin Westlake with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, campaigning in north London in the “Brexit” referendum. London voted “Remain” but many Labour party supporters in other parts of the country ignored the party line.

This can only be a small part-sample and not a comprehensive survey, but here are just a few examples that come to the mind of this long-term Parliament watcher and fan. Henry Plumb’s pragmatic pioneering Presidency of the Parliament (1987-89). Christopher Prout’s cerebral leadership of the British Conservatives (1987-1992) and his role on constitutional issues – notably, the EP’s post-Maastricht rules changes (amending the EP’s rules of procedure was a role later taken on with great distinction by Richard Corbett). Pauline Green’s leadership of the PES Group (1994-99) and her central role in the events leading to the 1999 resignation of the Santer Commission. Graham Watson’s leadership of the EP’s Liberals (2002-2009) and his vital role in the creation of the ALDE Group. The double act of Ken Collins (1979-99) and Caroline Jackson (1984-2009) in encouraging the development of the EU’s environmental policy and reinforcing the EP’s legislative role in that context. Alan Donnelly’s energetic vigour in various roles (1989-1999) but perhaps above all as rapporteur on German unification (a role in which he worked closely with Francis Jacobs from the EP’s staff). Caroline Lucas’s long-standing membership (1999-2010) that did so much to put the UK’s Greens on the political map. The indefatigable Winnie Ewing (1979-1999), who became affectionately known as ‘Madame Ecosse’. The humane and ever-polite John Hume (1979-2004), a quiet hero of the Irish peace process. Stanley Johnson’s (1979-84) early pursuit of animal welfare issues. Andrew Duff’s (1999-2014) purist federalism. Nick Clegg (1999-2004) cutting his political teeth and showing immediate promise. Glenys Kinnock (1994-2009) and her passionate pursuit of development issues. Similarly, Claude Moraes’ (1999-) work on civil liberties and Michael Cashman’s (1999-2014) work on minorities. And Malcolm Harbour’s (1999-2014) dogged support for completion of the single market.

It would be so easy to continue! In truth, British MEPs of various colours and stripes have done much to make the Parliament, and the Union, what they are today. Lastly, no such account would be complete without also mentioning the fine career of Julian Priestley, Secretary General of the European Parliament, 1997-2007, and ever an EP loyalist. Their contributions, and those of all the generations of British Members and officials in the European Parliament, will surely live on.

Book cover of The European Economic and Social Committee − the House of European Organised Civil Society by Martin Westlake

Martin Westlake is one of the distinguished band of former and current senior British officials and politicians who have contributed immensely to the literature on the European institutions. Martin was Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee from 2008-2013 and in his most recent book – The European Economic and Social Committee – he provides the first comprehensive guide to how that body works.

Editor: Eliot Scott-Faulkner

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One Response to The UK’s Legacy in the European Parliament

  1. Anita Pollack

    One could add so many more, but I would include here my former boss the Rt Hon Barbara Castle (later Baroness Castle), former UK Cabinet Minister in the Wilson governments, who led the British Labour Group in the first elected European Parliament from 1979 and who indefatigably battled to reform the CAP.