Open Europe Blog

Last night MPs debated amendments to the EU Bill to strengthen Parliament’s power over the Government on decisions about which EU crime, justice and immigration laws the UK signs up to. These were not abstract or merely technical points. This was about transferring power from the executive to the legislature (and therefore a step closer to MPs’ constituents) over lawmaking that can have a material impact on people’s lives. Once again, we would point you to the European Arrest Warrant or the EU laws requiring the UK to recognise trials in absentia or decisions on asylum – these are no trivial matters.

We could also point to the 90 or more EU laws that the UK Government could either decide to opt out of altogether in 2014, or remain signed up to (giving EU judges new powers.) The fate of 90 (or even 100 depending on how you count) laws will be decided in one go, in a one-off decision. You’d think MPs should take a bit of interest in such a choice.

But the vast majority of MPs apparently didn’t want to know. The sea of empty green benches was evidence of that. Consequently the amendments were not pushed to a vote and the Government will be able to continue opting in to new EU justice and immigration laws, unhindered by any real Parliamentary control.

The Government has pledged to consult with Parliament about giving MPs and Lords more power to scrutinise and potentially vote on “significant” new EU justice and immigration laws. But MPs need to be much more assertive in demanding greater power over EU affairs if it is to become anything more substantive than a pledge to merely consult.

An amendment to put the crucial 2014 choice was defeated 313 votes to 26 under a three-line whip. The Government has committed to put this choice to both houses, which is welcome, but we had hoped for a bit more excitement yesterday on this issue.

There’s just something missing.

In a strange kind of way, MPs should learn from Members of the European Parliament here. Those who occupy seats in Brussels and Strasbourg are open about their thirst for greater powers and do all they can to grasp them (usually leading to unwanted and out-of-touch decisions unfortunately – but that’s a different discussion). On EU matters, the contrast to Westminster is stark.

And ironically, there’s a clear, inverse relationship between the clout of MEPs and the clout of MPs in the areas that were discussed yesterday: every new EU immigration, crime or policing law that our Westminster representatives allow the Government to opt in to will see MPs losing a chunk of power, with MEPs correspondingly gaining the same level of power (as EU JHA laws are decided jointly by ministers and the European Parliament).

Usually it’s a noble thing to say no to power, but we fear this is a matter of our elected representatives being happily unaware, not realising that they’re outsourcing some of their key responsibilities to bodies that usually (though not always) aren’t equipped to balance democracy, law and justice in a union of 27 different legal systems.

If MPs are not willing to put down a marker and fight for some of their own, how can they possibly complain about the ‘diminished role of Parliament’ or wonder why people out there in the real world continue to ask what their representatives in Westminster are actually paid for.

Come on MPs – you can do much better than this.

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