EC vice-president fears expenses row hitting Euro elections
Voters have been urged to put aside their dislike and cynicism of politicians during the expenses row and turn out in force for European elections on June 4.
The vice-president of the European Commission was in Birmingham on a whistle stop tour of the UK to obtain support for the June 4 poll.
Margot Wallstrom was meeting a group of first-time voters from Birmingham University and spoke of her fears that the expenses row could affect how people vote. “I worry that the Euro-sceptic, racist and xenophobic parties who play on people’s fears will benefit from this,” she said.
While she couldn’t comment on the British situation, in Strasbourg expenses were scrutinised more thoroughly. “Things could be improved but the system is more transparent and all the MEPs’ expenses are available to be viewed on the web.”
She said the row had made their already uphill battle to get British voters interested in the Euro elections harder.
“So what is the point of the European Parliament? People say because there’s no such thing as ‘European people’, it is too far removed,” she said. “And when it comes to the European elections, the old cliché is that it’s a talking shop and the only productive things to come out of it are liver disease and gout.”
Ms Wallstrom said one of the most common gripes heard on her travels was “what has Europe done for me?”
“Well, straightaway I can tell you it has set a target for reducing CO2 emissions, ensures that disabled air passengers have the same rights as able-bodied ones, sets tough regulations on safe chemicals and has reduced roaming charges on mobile phones,” she said.
“The EU has widespread substantial powers. Why else would companies and organisations pay 10,000 lobbyists in Brussels if it was just a talking shop?”
Ms Wallstrom said another reason to vote was because of the huge financial power the Parliament wields in deciding how to spend a budget of €133million. She said the Parliament was also the most independent in Europe, a quality which was under-rated. “There are 785 members watching my every move and picking holes in what I suggest. In the European Commission we have to pay attention to the MEPs as they can so easily fire us,” she said. They had an uphill battle in raising the profile of the Parliament as its day to day work was not sexy and “did not make good telly”.
She said: “It is a legislative body and the media have little interest in what it does. It isn’t like national parliaments where it’s all about governing and the opposition attacking every day – it simply legislates. Watching it can be nearly as exciting as watching paint dry but if you don’t vote then the person who does has a say and you don’t, it’s as simple as that.”
Among the students in the audience was first-time voter Martin Knight, who is in his second year of a political science degree at Birmingham University. He said he would not vote on June 4 but would in the next general election. “I’m not Euro-sceptic and do believe in Europe, but I don’t believe MEPs are accountable in the same way our MPs are,” he said.