Our political system is in desperate need of reform. We need to tackle the harmful influence of big business and corporate lobbyists. We need more transparency and public scrutiny of decision makers. And we need social justice and environmental protection to come before short-term corporate profit.
All of these things are true in Westminster – and equally applicable at EU level.
That’s what Green MEPs are doing everyday – as part of the 50-strong Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. Among them is Keith Taylor, our Green MEP for the South East of England. Keith and I are launching the local Brighton #GreenerIN EU referendum campaign tomorrow (!) morning on Brighton beach – so please do come along and have a chat if you’re free.
So what are the top Green priorities for EU reform?
1. More democracy
A good place to start would be to give the directly-elected European Parliament more powers - in relation to other EU institutions. MEPs should be able to initiate legislation, to amend and veto all Commission proposals and, obviously, to decide on their own geographical location - Greens have long campaigned for end to the travelling circus that sees the European Parliament trek from Brussels to Strasbourg every month.
The UK should also argue for the introduction of a formal ‘green card’ system whereby national parliaments could be given the power to propose European draft laws, and not simply to object to them via a ‘red card’. Even the House of Lords backs the ‘green card’ idea.
There are several ways to strengthen participatory democracy in order to make citizens’ voices heard at the EU level too. An obvious starting point is bolstering the European Citizens’ Initiative, for example by allowing 16 and 17 year olds to take part, by simplifying the onerous online process, and by allowing petitions to be open for 18 months. It’s thanks to this mechanism that opposition to TTIP in Brussels has grown so fast, causing serious delays and concessions, and showing that citizen action can have a real impact on EU decision making.
2. More transparency
The Council, which brings together Ministers elected in each country, should become fully transparent. In practice that would mean giving much wider publicity to Council voting records and minutes of meetings, with more live-streaming too, allowing the electorate to hold to account the people who purport to represent it. These are changes that could and should happen almost immediately, with British support. There’s an EU-wide petition on transparency too – please add your name!
3. More scrutiny
There’s a lot that the UK could do to transform the UK’s relationship with the EU overnight. Imagine, for example, if the British parliament was given the chance to debate the Government’s negotiating position before Ministers set off to EU Council meetings. At present, the House of Commons merely gets a Minister giving a report on the meetings after they have occurred.
The Electoral Reform Society has identified no fewer than 8 things the UK can do - by itself - to improve democracy and scrutiny of EU law making.
4. Tackling corporate power
Too often, big business and corporate lobbyists have an undue influence in Brussels (and Westminster too for that matter). To curb the power of private vested interests, the EU urgently needs to introduce a compulsory and legally binding EU lobby register requiring lobbyists to be fully open about their activities – steps have already been taken in that direction but more is required. It is also crucial that the citizens of Europe are given oversight of the international trade deals being negotiated on their behalf. At present, deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are negotiated almost entirely behind closed doors, and even elected politicians in the European Parliament are given only limited access to documents (although even that is an improvement over the situation facing the UK Parliament until very recently.) That clearly must change – and people should be allowed to form their own view about the potential of such treaties.
5. Addressing inequality
Alongside institutional change, we need bold new EU level policies to transform people’s lives for the better, all across Europe. For example, I would like to see the EU investigating the possibilities of a minimum wage for every single worker in the 28 member states. The wage rate would vary between countries, of course, but the EU could provide the base-level guarantee that everyone gets a fair wage for their work. As a country that already has a minimum wage, there is no reason why Britain could not lead the campaign at the EU level to make this measure cross-continental.
6. Low carbon jobs
Serious work should also be undertaken to move the EU towards a Europe-wide ‘Green New Deal’. Such a package would re-regulate the financial industry and channel resources into green investment to fund renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable industries and infrastructure, protect natural resources, and related research, innovation, education and training. Jobs would be created – and Europe’s economy would be put on a more sustainable footing.
There are many more areas where we need policies at EU level –a ban on micro plastics that are polluting our oceans, bolder action on climate change, and better product standards to protect consumers and save money to name just three.
So that’s a flavour of the Green vision for reform.
How do we secure these changes?
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that the EU has already reformed substantially. The powers of the European Parliament have been steadily increased, meaning that MEPs get a chance to veto key laws and trade deals like TTIP.
Some EU Council meetings are being live-streamed already and a voluntary transparency register has been introduced to keep a check on lobbyists. These reforms do not go as far as many would like – but they expose as a myth the idea peddled by anti-EU voices who say that the EU can never change.
Secondly, we’re seeing a blossoming of pro-European democracy movements, all across the continent. The DieM movement, set up by the ex-Finance Minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, has brought together thousands of people under the slogan of ‘The EU will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate’. If, like me, you’re ‘outraged at the lack of transparency’ please add your name to this DieM petition.
Similarly, a group called ‘Plan B’ will hold regular conferences with politicians and activists from across Europe to build the movement for a different kind of Europe. No one country can change Europe – which is why these movements from every corner of the continent are so timely, and so exciting.
Here in the UK, I’m proud that the Greens have formally affiliated to Another Europe is Possible – a radical, progressive campaign, set up by grassroots activists and campaigners, determined to stay in Europe to change Europe. Please check out my blog for ways to get involved.
And thirdly, the greatest contribution that Britain can make to progressive reforms in the EU, aside from remaining a member state, is electing a government and a set of MEPs who favour changing Europe for the better. We know that what comes out of the EU is a product of what is put in – so the major task of progressives across the EU is winning elections in our respective countries.
Of course the European Union is not perfect, but, after centuries of warfare, making decisions through debate and dialogue remains the best way forward. Only by working within and reforming the EU will the British people be best placed to continue to live in our corner of the world - both in terms of security and in line with our values.
Before I was elected as MP for Brighton Pavilion, I was a member of the European Parliament for ten years. I’m the first person to say that the EU has its flaws and needs reform. But we’ve seen that change is possible. And I am more convinced than ever that the European Union is essential for dealing with the cross-border challenges we face today – whether that’s the refugee crisis, tax dodging, or climate change.
Above all, this referendum is about the kind of country we want to be, the kind of people we are, and the kind of future we want for our children and grandchildren. It matters more than any single General Election – so please get involved in the conversation, and make sure you’re registered to vote on 23 June.