My work experience for Diane James MEP was illuminating regarding both the workings of the EU, but also how the issues discussed in Strasbourg directly affect the UK and Brexit. The EU parliament was sleek, modern and a reflection of the stature of the EU in the modern political climate; enormous in size and complexity. It represents the extravagance of the Parliament, to construct a building of this magnitude and grandeur to only be used 1 in 7 days of the year. As impressive as the EU parliament is, the cost of the building and the cost of relocating the EU to Strasbourg once every 4 weeks is unjustifiable and the magnitude of the Parliament only serves as a reminder of that.
Diane James MEP was extremely hands on with my week’s work experience in her office. I had expected to only meet her in passing and be largely coordinated by her assistant, yet I found right from the outset she showed an interest in not only myself, but also the work I undertook across the 4 days. She was a great advocate of transparency and was adamant I was to experience the benefits afforded to MEPs such as a chauffeur to and from Parliament to the hotel. I had the pleasure of witnessing her debate in Parliament, advocating the benefits of Brexit to those in the EU had prefer to act as though the referendum had never taken place.
I found the EU Parliament to be somewhat disappointing, despite the reservations I already held about the EU as a legislative body, it still managed to underwhelm me. MEPs from all parties took the opportunity to speak in the main hall; not too raise the standard of debate and contribute with suggestions of substance, but to pander to their constituents. This results in MEPs repeating the same line and creating an air of monotony that stifles any productive debate, wasting the precious time allowed for discourse on the matters at hand. The only exception to this was a discussion on the rule of law in Poland and whether the EU ought to deal with the wearing away of democratic institutions in the Member State. While there were valid arguments on both sides, I found it hypocritical from the EU to claim on the one hand they must intervene to protect the constitution and rights of Polish citizens, but in the same breath declare their support for the Spanish Government in relation to Catalan independence. The EU cannot declare one day that they do not interfere in the Member States’ constitutions and the next advocate intervention in Poland to do just that, simply because it does not mirror the neo-liberal politics of the EU.
During the voting session on the Wednesday, to my dismay I witnessed numerous MEPs not bothering to vote. As the President of the Parliament asked for Members to vote on amendments to bills, MEPs were sat idly playing on their tablets and smart phones; how can the EU expect to be taken seriously when they act so indifferently to the responsibilities as representatives of their Member States. The term ‘democratic deficit’ is often associated with the EU and coupled with the lack of transparency, it is easy to understand people’s qualms with the institution. The Parliament appears to be little more than a secondary tier chamber and the real direction of the EU is led by the Commission, none of whom are democratically elected. Bureaucrats leading elected officials is not how a ‘democratic’ institution should be run.
My expectation was that I would be treated as a nuisance in the way of the real parliamentary work needing to be done, but I found I was not assigned menial tasks but afforded the responsibility to contribute something in my 4 days. From the outset I was invited to the AFCO meeting where Diane James MEP was speaking as a member of that committee and was offered the opportunity to analyse the working documents being discussed. Tuesday, I was in the main chamber in the morning to witness the debate on the paradise papers, which admittedly amounted to little more than rehearsed monologues from the members; hardly constituting a ‘debate’. The first round of voting followed this, and I witnessed first-hand how the process of electronic voting works, allowing for a near-immediate result. One of the most important votes of Wednesdays session was on the 7 nominations to the European Court of Auditors. I was asked to do background research on all the candidates and produce a briefing sheet on each. To witness the vote take place knowing you had an input and fully understand the arguments being put forward for each candidate was thrilling.
On Tuesday my evening was spent attending a debate hosted by the European Parliamentary Association on the issue of citizenship in the UK post-Brexit. While I learnt much on the legal aspect of European citizenship and the role of the ECJ, I was puzzled by its billing as a ‘debate’ when all three panellists were staunch Remainers. It appeared more of an effort to show the EU that not all of Britain voted for Brexit and that there were still those who sought to mend bridges burned. I was tasked with writing a ‘Voxbox’ speech, a two-minute monologue to be shared to on her website and social media platforms, on the subject discussed at the debate for Diane James MEP the next day. Wednesday morning, I attended the debate on the rule of law in Poland, followed by a tour of the building along with a presentation on the workings of the EU which filled the gaps in my knowledge.
I would advise anyone, whether you voted remain or leave, to spend a week working for Diane James MEP in Strasbourg through her work experience programme. I applied because of my interest in current affairs and the process of the UK leaving the EU, and not only did I learn more on these issues in a theoretical context but also the practical implications regarding the inner workings of the parliament first hand.