THIS has been a turbulent week in British politics. The United Kingdom Independence Party insurgency was predicted –but the reality was even more striking.
In Yorkshire and the Humber we now have three Ukip Members of the European Parliament and I will yield my seat on July 1 as a result.
It has been a great privilege to serve this region for 30 years, to have played a role in encouraging democracy and human rights across the ex-Soviet Bloc during the reunification of the continent and to have been an actor in the development of the EU’s other great achievement – the Single Market.
I set up the “1992 Club” in Yorkshire, the first initiative to prepare businesses for the challenges and opportunities of the Single Market which opened that year, and which today has 500 million consumers.
Those new Ukip MEPs, and the more experienced two Labour MEPs and one Conservative representative, will represent the region during a period when our membership of the EU itself is under question and, just as importantly, the effect that this uncertainty will have on businesses in this region.
There are differing estimates, but a reasonable calculation is that one in 10 jobs here depend on our access to the Single Market. The inward investment from the likes of Siemens or Tata Steel is incalculable. Not surprisingly, in its survey last autumn, the CBI found eight out of 10 firms wanted Britain to stay in the EU.
At a meeting with Nick Clegg in London this week, his outgoing MEPs analysed the election. All felt that he had been right to challenge Nigel Farage with the “In Europe – In Work” slogan and all agreed that we were the victims of a protest vote which came from two sources: Ukip and a surprise late showing from the Green Party.
Nick’s own future as MP for Sheffield Hallam has been questioned in a poll financed by a disgruntled peer, although the results of the local elections there imply that he will retain the seat next May in the General election, Lib Dems polling 39 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 24 per cent. And Nick was right to say that the Liberal Democrats’ contribution to the economic recovery was not recognised.
This was always going to be a difficult election for the Lib Dems. Taking tough choices in government to fix the economy and sticking by our principles on Europe was never going to be a massive vote winner, but it was the right thing – and the principled thing – to do; even Tony Blair now “agrees with Nick” and urges Labour to follow suit.
Neither the Lib Dems nor the Tories have ever come close to challenging Labour’s domination in their Yorkshire heartlands – Doncaster, Rotherham or Wakefield. Ukip topped the poll in all of them – and gained Council seats in Rotherham, where Lib Dems never made progress even in the good years. It’s a slap in the face for Ed Miliband who faces a serious Ukip challenge on his own doorstep.
Despite all the hype, Lib Dems also topped the poll in Leeds North West and came within spitting distance of Labour in Bradford East and Hull West & Hessle. We held our seats elsewhere and in Hull gained a seat from Labour for the first time in six years.
One consequence of the Clegg–Farage TV debates seems to have been an increase in British support for EU membership, according to a poll of 6,000 taken during the election.
A YouGov survey put support for Ukip, which wants Britain to leave the EU, on 27 per cent, ahead of all other parties. But paradoxically it said 42 per cent of those polled would vote to stay in the EU if given the chance and 37 per cent to leave.
At the EU “dinner” summit in Brussels on Tuesday, many leaders could tell of similar insurgencies and similar paradoxes: for example, contrasting the large delegation of French National Front MEPs and similar right-wing successes elsewhere, against the radical “Podemos” MEPs elected on an anti-austerity mandate in Spain.
The general feeling is that the public across Europe have taken the opportunity of what is perceived as a relatively free hit in the European elections and punished their governments. Brussels has become a whipping-boy and David Cameron is now turning his attention to just what reforms he can achieve without starting a wholesale free-for-all, as each country pitches for something.
One idea gaining ground which will win support is to improve the links between national parliaments and the EU. There is already a committee of national parliaments, on which I represented the European Parliament for five years as a vice-president. The committee already has the capacity to review and challenge EU proposals. This mechanism could be strengthened.
The question today however is whether it was a free hit. After all, the European Parliament now has equal decision-making powers with the 28 EU governments over almost all legislation. Its influence has already been felt in a range of areas.
I brought Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to Brussels to launch his Fish Fight against discarding good fish to a continental audience. As a result of a strong campaign the European Parliament has voted to end discards and it is only the detail that is now being worked out.
In farming, the notoriously wasteful and unfair Common Agricultural Policy will be looked at again in the coming Parliament. I have been urging, including in these pages, a rebalancing of EU subsidies. Brussels pays out 100 times to farmers, often very rich ones, what it disburses to the most deprived, through food banks for example.
When Ukip’s three new Yorkshire and the Humber MEPs arrive in Brussels they will find that it is not just home to the EU. There too are some 3,000 journalists, a huge diplomatic corps, Nato and lobbyists.
The Yorkshire Post has already warned that the MEPs must prove their effectiveness in office and that this will determine Ukip’s fortunes at the next election. I suspect that the incoming European Parliament will be subject to scrutiny as never before, and rightly so.
• Edward McMillan-Scott is an outgoing Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.