On Thursday 7th April our Future Faces group visited Brussels to find out more about the EU institutions and bodies ahead of the referendum, hosted by local MEP Daniel Dalton. The group consisted of young professionals working in policy, community housing, tax and litigation as well as GBCC Director of Policy, Director of Commercial Services and CEO Paul Faulkner.
We met Daniel in a committee room next to the main Chamber where Daniel greeted us armed with PowerPoint Slides. Daniel explained that working with young people is a top priority for him. He is also heavily involved in the EU40 network for MEPs under the age of 40 whose focus is to engage more young people in politics, since its inception he told us that this network has now grown to 80 members. I found it refreshing to hear as a part of a group of young professionals as the status quo can be for politicians who have retired from their national posts to then progress to the European Parliament (EP) rather than have the EP serve as the main focus of a politician's career. The network also has a focus on digital communications and finding ways of communicating the actions of the EP through social media and more widely used channels which I found appealing.
Daniel covered the ways in which he felt the EU institutions could be more efficient or could be changed for the better, and also discussed low voter turnout with the group. “The EU average is 43 per cent and the UK turnout 36 per cent, and there was a discussion about why there is a general apathy in the UK, and also why voting is compulsory in other member states. For more information on EU member state voter turnout please see the slides kindly provided by George Stylianou Directorate-General for Communications here.
Although not an EU institution, the Committee of the Regions (CoR) is an advisory body of local regional representatives providing local authorities in the various EU member countries with a voice of the EU. Having spent time visiting the CoR during my Masters year in 2009 I felt it was an important body to highlight, particularly from a regional perspective. Our group was privileged to hear from Kathryn Owens (originally from the midlands) who works for the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in Europe. Interestingly Kathryn explained to the delegation how the UK Conservative party left the group following the 2009 elections, to join forces with the Czech Civic Democrats to form the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, leaving the EPP with no UK representatives which is a rather strange position for Kathryn to be in!
What was also interesting was how the CoR has become increasingly more utilised by the Parliament, Commission and Council of Ministers as Martin Schulz President of the European Parliament had visited the CoR the previous week for an exchange of views with CoR Party Presidents. Kathryn informed us that these visits from Ministers and Commissioners were also becoming more frequent which is a good sign.
We were also lucky to meet with former Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore, who has been a CoR member with the PES Group since 1994. He explained how his involvement with CoR had helped to influence regional policy during his time as council leader. He also informed us that working closely with regional representatives from other member states has allowed him to take advantage of best practice in Europe, such as the transport infrastructure which exists in the city of Lyon. Albert is a long standing member of the PES Group (centre left party) and finds that working closely with the PES group in parliament through party lines is a useful way of having more influence.
Our Chief Exec Paul Faulkner joined us on the trip in a quest for greater knowledge on the workings of the EU and how it affects regional policy making said: “This was a great opportunity for the young people to see first-hand how the European Union operates.” Paul then told me on the day that he found it particularly interesting how the political parties at national level migrate in to the parties at the European level, for example the UK labour politicians crossover into the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats. Also when some elected representatives don’t feel they fit a particular party they can form their own party but must have a minimum number of supporters.
What did we take away from the visit?
I think the visit allowed us to further understand how regions can be represented in Brussels, the common misconception can be that member states at national level are the only influencers. Given that city councillors and mayors are represented in their own body, there is certainly a platform for influencing and consulting on white papers and policy. Also the European Parliament is the only directly elected body of the three main EU institutions yet voter turnout in the UK is low and certainly below the EU average. This voter apathy highlights perhaps the lack of knowledge amongst the UK electorate on either the institutions themselves or on the voting process itself.
Surely the common thought that the EU is not accountable could be further tackled if a higher proportion of the electorate participated in the EU elections every five years. In addition, it will be interesting to see what proportion of the electorate turnout for the referendum on 23rd June, my guess is that it will be significantly higher. To view our GBCC policy briefing doc compiled from the British Chambers of Commerce Survey (Feb-16) responses from regional businesses please click here. According to research amongst young people in the UK the swing is towards a pro EU stance but whether this will reflect in June remains to be seen. The Chamber policy team have several other events in the build up to the referendum and I would recommend attending these to find out more.