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16 May 2017

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.

By Mary Honeyball

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.   

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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.

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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.