In an age of voter apathy, few political bodies have sunk to the depths of the European Parliament in the eyes of its citizens. Most don’t know what it does, even more don’t care and, those that do, accuse it of a variety of slurs from being undemocratic, remote, a gravy train, a bunch of second-raters, bureaucratic, federalist, free spending, power grabbing and protectionist. David Cameron recently joined this cause when he said:
There is not, in my view, a single European demos. It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.
Well, this week, the European Parliament took a major step in rebutting Cameron et al. For years the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been a disaster. As the Fish for the Future campaign group point out, the CFP has led to 1.7 million tonnes of fish being thrown back into the sea each year, two thirds of stocks being overfished, a 26% decrease in landings of fish over the past ten years and a loss of 30% of jobs in fishing communities in the same period. How did we allow this to happen? Before the Lisbon Treaty, EU fisheries legislation was decided behind closed doors by ministers who, under the influence of national vested interests, set quotas up to 40% above the recommended scientific limits.
The decision making was as untransparent and remote as it was wholly misguided. What should have been a successful example of European countries working together on a cross-border issue became a symbol of the EU’s inability to act when disaster threatened. National parliaments failed to rein in their ministers.
However, on Wednesday this all changed. The European Parliament, participating as the co-legislator for the first time, voted to ban discards and set ‘maximum sustainable yields’ which would limit fishing above those levels necessary to regenerate fish stocks. The public have been instrumental in this change with a high level campaign led by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. And crucially, the Parliament responded, represented the views of its constituents and created a link between the public and the actions of their legislators.
It’s true that this is only a first step for the CFP and negotiations between the Parliament and EU governments must take place before a final deal is done. The Parliament’s record in other areas has also not been as encouraging, for example the recent vote on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, it is a sign of genuine hope that the old fashioned, undemocratic way of doing things could finally be over. It’s a sign that a pan-European public campaign (i.e. a European demos) can really change how things work in the EU. It’s a sign that something resembling a representative democracy might finally be emerging in the EU.