The real Europe story

Phil Parry casts his eye over today’s European elections

Phil Parry is the Editor of Wales Eye (www.waleseye.com).

The European election in Wales is perhaps more interesting than in most parts of the UK.

It is entirely possible, if the polls are correct, that Plaid Cymru may lose their solitary seat in the European parliament.

The politician at risk is the veteran Jill Evans, a like-able and doughty campaigner who has been on the political scene in Wales for more than 30 years.

Ms Evans has long been known for her strong views, and joined campaigners on the first leg of the march to Greenham common in August 1981, which led to the camp protesting against the siting of cruise missiles targeted on the then Soviet Union.

But the heat is not simply on Plaid.

According to the Welsh Political Barometer, a collaboration between ITV Wales, the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University and YouGov, the Conservatives are running them a close, er, third.  The poll shows Labour, as always, will win the biggest share of the vote, at 33 per cent, although that has dropped by six points since February.

The Conservatives are down one point on 16 per cent, while Plaid Cymru are up three points on 15 per cent. In other words they are neck and neck, and scrapping like alley cats, to mix my metaphors. While Labour and UKIP will take the first two seats in Strasbourg, there is a desperate fight for the second two.

But the real figure to watch is how many people actually vote in this election.

The turnout has gone down consistently since 1979, while polls indicate the level of mistrust among the electorate has risen. At the last European election average turnout was just 43 per cent. This is in an electorate of 380 million – the biggest in the world after India.

It is, in essence, 28 national elections, and as such the parliament has more individual parties than any other, although the 751 MEPs sit in multinational groups. This time voters are likely to upset the pro-EU mainstream in Strasbourg and Brussels, the union’s legislative capital, because voters seem certain to choose some more extreme parties than ever.

It is, in effect, a massive protest vote – a plague on your house of fat-cats, enjoying the high life funded by our taxes, they say. There is huge disillusion among voters over the perceived distance (both geographical and metaphorical) of the people they vote for and because of the cost of the institution.

At more than £146 million a year the European parliament is not cheap. In fact it costs more than the British, French, and German national parliaments put together, although admittedly a lot of that cost can be put down to the fact they are working in 24 languages.

The parliament is also viewed as something of a traveling circus. Most committee meetings are held in Brussels, but Strasbourg is the official seat, while the majority of support staff are based in Luxembourg. The majority of MEPs, it is reported, want Brussels as their permanent home, but the French will almost certainly veto that.

MEPs expenses have long been the butt of jokes or worse and they are indeed outrageous – no receipts need to be produced and there is minimal auditing. The employment of family members is common – just ask Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who employs his German wife as his secretary, opening himself up to charges of hypocrisy. The parliament refused to assist a recent inquiry by Transparency International into corruption in EU institutions.

The other way of protesting in this election is, of course, by not voting at all. If the turnout this time falls below 43 per cent, as most observers believe (or even, heaven forbid, 40 per cent), the European parliament’s credibility will be further eroded. This is an enormous shame because the European Union really matters.

A vast number of laws which govern our lives in Wales are affected by decisions in Europe and up to 90 per cent of them require the assent of the European parliament. The EU, despite the problems of the Euro, is a huge and (whisper it) successful, trading bloc and it is fantasy to suggest the UK could go it alone in the global economy.

Incredibly, parties which are broadly opposed to the whole thing could take more than a quarter of the seats – these include the French National Front, the Dutch Party of Freedom, UKIP as well as extreme left wing groups like Syriza in Greece and the United Left in Spain.

This will be the real story when we tuck into our cornflakes after the votes everywhere are counted.

The fate of Ms Evans will just be symbolic.

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