Christopher Furlong / Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May will learn that bluster and insults achieve nothing in Europe

UK negotiators must adopt a more consensual approach. But time is running out.

Voters in France, Britain and the United States have had enough. They don't like how politics is done in their respective countries but their solutions are very different. In the UK and the USA, we see regressive hankering after, supposedly "glory days". The United Kingdom still apparently yearns for an empire, when Britain ruled the waves and held sway over large parts of the globe and won two world wars. 

There are many reasons why the new French President Emmanuel Macron was able to win a ground-breaking victory while the Anglo-Saxons seem unable to climb out of their self-imposed bunker. The UK and USA majoritarian, first past the post electoral systems will almost always lead to confrontational politics. In contrast, a proportional, multi-party system may encourage consensus building. Since parties cannot annihilate each other in the same was as they are able to in majoritarian elections, they must find other ways of operating. This could be called kinder, gentler politics. It’s also far more efficient as business is conducted by negotiation rather than being decided on the basis of who shouts loudest, and Theresa May must learn that art, and do so quickly.

The European Parliament is one of the best examples of a legislature where consensual politics is the way business is done. A chamber at present still comprising 28 member states will obviously function differently from one concerning an individual nation state. Nevertheless, the European Parliament is very much based on the way legislatures work in other European countries. The 751 MEPs form eight political groups spanning the political spectrum from hard left to ultra-right with two main groups, one centre-right and the other centre-left.

It is a system which requires consensus at all levels. When on occasion British MEPs, generally from the right-wing parties, have attempted House of Commons style barracking, it has been met with stony silence. Nigel Farage badly misinterpreted the European Parliament when in February 2010 he accused the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, to his face of having “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.”

While elements of the British tabloid press loved this, the Europeans were acutely embarrassed. It did nothing to enhance Britain’s standing.   

This unshowy way of doing politics extends to European Parliament committee meetings. Legislation is taken forward by one MEP from the committee leading on the issue. Known as the rapporteur, this person is the lynch-pin as far as the report is concerned. It’s a very important role which is generally carried out in consultation with the shadow rapporteurs (like the lead minority member in the US Congress) appointed by the other political groups. The aim is to reach agreement by discussion and negotiation. Amendment to the report will, of course, be debated and voted on in the committee and finally in the plenary session of the European Parliament, but only after avenues for agreement have been exhausted.

There are some rather sweet touches to all of this. When a report goes through committee, for example, it is customary to thank the rapporteur and applaud them for their effort. 

Even though the positions of chair and vice-chair of European Parliament committees are always hotly contested there are sometimes agreements that two members of the same political group will share the position, In this scenario, each member would hold the post for half of the Parliament’s five-year mandate. I am currently experiencing this in my role as vice-chair of the Women's Rights and Gender Equality committee.

Ultimately it is about MEPs respecting each other, both as individuals and for their views.

It is a problem for the UK that May has no concept of Brussels and how business is conducted there. She probably has not had to finesse the art of negotiation in her previous portfolios. Consequently, her autocratic approach is particularly at odds with how business is conducted in the three EU primary institutions. It's not a problem exclusive to May. The Conservatives have an ingrained problem when it comes to comprehending the way politics is conducted in Brussels. We know that from David Cameron who was clumsy at best, both when he sought a renegotiated deal prior to the referendum with the European Union and when he tried to block Jean-Claude Juncker's appointment as President of the European Commission. The only renegotiation he obtained was a fig leaf and he returned pretending that he had achieved substantial concessions.

As she advances with the Brexit negotiations Theresa May must learn that to get what she, and Britain, wants she must be more in tune with the European way of doing things. She should always remember that there are 27 of them and only one of us. Compromise is second nature to almost all of the Europeans in their own state legislatures. When their Leaders are in the various EU ministerial councils, their compromising tendencies are amplified. Inevitably they react badly to what they see as bullying and bad behaviour. It is not too late for a Prime Minister elected on 8 June to find another way of doing things. 

However, a British change of heart must not be left too much later than that. If Britain is to leave the European Union we need the best possible deal. Bluster and insults never achieve anything in Europe.

Mary Honeyball MEP, Labour spokesperson in Europe on gender and equality. www.thehoneyballbuzz.com

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear