The EU referendum was, perhaps understandably, at the top of the agenda at Green Party conference in Harrogate this weekend.
Greens often talk about the need for democratic reform of the EU (assuming Britain votes to stay in). But what would it actually look like in practice?
I went to the launch debate of the #GreenerIN campaign on Saturday. While it's not clear how the June vote will go yet, if the UK does vote to 'Remain' then we've got some serious reforming to do. Caroline Lucas MP expressed Green sentiment on the issue succinctly in her #GreenerIN launch speech: 'The EU needs to be more transparent and democratic - as does the House of Commons'. We need democratic reform in all our institutions, which are creaking at the seams.
In the meantime, one of the most pressing issues is getting people registered to actually have their say in the first place. Statistics released last week showed that nearly 800,000 people have dropped off the electoral register across the UK in the past year, in large part due to the shift from household registration to the new individual system of enrolment, IER.
That means that our electoral roll is getting patchier and more unequal by the year, with the majority of areas with the biggest drop representing deprived or student areas. Ross Greer, Scottish Greens' spokesperson on Europe & External Affairs said that the Scottish referendum led to 97% registration rate under the old system - with people literally 'queuing outside registration offices right up to midnight in order to sign up to vote'.
Generating this kind of enthusiasm about the EU debate will be a big task, but it's certainly not impossible. A clear and positive campaign on both sides - with real visions of what they want to see would certainly help. Molly Scott-Cato MEP said up to now 'the debate is very sterile'. There was plenty of agreement in the audience...
But in the debate, Green MEP Keith Taylor emphasised his positive vision for democratic reform of the EU, highlighting:
- The need to strengthen the European Parliament - including giving it the ability to initiate legislation (currently only the unelected Commission can propose legislation)
- The European Parliament should be able to veto and scrutinise the Commission's work-plan
- Parliament should be able to choose where it sits - including ending the wasteful and expensive decampments to Strasbourg
There are things we can do here and now though - as the UK - to democratise the EU. There's some food for thought from 'Close the Gap' - the Electoral Reform Society's 2014 publication on the need for reform in Europe.
Here are 8 things the UK can do - on our own - to democratically reform the EU if Britain votes to stay in:
- The UK Parliament should be able to scrutinise the Government's negotiating position before Council meetings as well as after
- The UK Parliament should 'mainstream' European policies by sending legislation to the appropriate committee depending on the policy area
- Westminster should organise a Speaker's Conference on strengthening Parliament's role in EU democracy, and take proposals forward to a pan-European conference of parliaments
- Give devolved parliaments and assemblies the ability to hold UK ministers to account at EU negotiations, and devolved ministers the right to participate in Council meetings
- Parliament and the UK Government should put in place mechanisms for giving citizens a direct say in the shaping of EU legislation
- The introduction of a candidate-centred, proportional system should be adopted for the UK elections to the European Parliament - ideally the Single Transferable Vote, but an open-list system would be an improvement on the current closed-list system
- Political parties should seek to improve gender representation in the European Parliament by increasing the number of female candidates they put forward for election in winnable positions
- Parties should attempt to recruit candidates with a wider range of views on Europe. EU policy affects agriculture, trade and almost every other area of British public life, and this should be emphasised when recruiting candidates.