There are some things I like about being a part of the EU. Not having to get a visa to visit any part of the EU is brilliant. I have no plans to visit Estonia, but it's nice to think that I could at any time without finding their embassy, applying for a visa and then sticking to their time limits.
Another is this business about being able to bring back anything you've bought elsewhere within the EU, providing you've got a receipt and paid taxes in that country. For the most part being able to bring back tobacco for myself and a couple of friends is what matters most to me personally. Of course it's far broader than that and given the amount of salt they lay on our winter roads, it's marvelous that people can bring back things like classic motorcycles and scooters from places like Italy (where they don't rot or rust) without serious hassle. To my mind the free movement of goods is one of the big advantages of our being in the EU.
I know there are millions of retired Brits living in many different countries in the EU - and they can buy property and drive vehicles without having to mess around with all the bumph that used to be the case beforehand. A British drivers' license can be used to get a local one, usually without the slightest bother.
And I really like the fact that people from elsewhere in the EU can come to Britain to work or retire with exactly the same sort of treatment as we get in places like Spain, Italy, France and so on. My painter's Polish: he's very fast, always got time for a coffee, smokes rollups and doesn't charge a fortune. He told me he came to the UK to avoid National Service in Poland - no other reason - and that he's one of thousands who didn't want to lose a year or so of his life serving his country. That ended in 2008, but they're now thinking about making every male in Poland undergo compulsory military training to counteract the Russian "threat" (01). I abhor any form of conscription for any reason so, as far as I'm concerned, anyone from another EU country who wants to come and live here to contribute to our economy and at the same time avoid their draft is most welcome. Doubly if they smoke!
The EU: changing conventions.
Yet there's one thing that I'm especially pleased about and that's the EU elections. They were a first for most of us as they're run under Proportional Representation - and that benefits smaller parties. Looking at the figures for 2009 we saw several dozen field candidates (02) and again in 2014 we saw stacks of them, all vying for our vote (03). It's my belief the Greens and UKIP would never have passed first base were it not for the EU elections - and there they are in 2014 with 3 Green MEPs and an impressive 24 for UKIP. The BNP managed to get 2 MEPs in 2009, but they blew it big time and now they're walking into oblivion with less than 2,000 votes in the 2015 General Election (04).
Invariably I use the BNP as an example of what's so very good about PR. They were a product of their time, they appealed to a certain type of voter and they got elected. Under the gaze of public scrutiny both MEPs came well short of expectations and - more to the point - were singularly inept in Brussels. So we had the chance to "suck it and see" and even their supporters didn't much like what they saw.
It didn't cost us much and I think our democracy's stronger because of it. Their story's repeated throughout the EU with literally dozens of extreme parties having their five years in Brussels then crashing and burning.
Looking at the Big Six who represent us in Brussels, the Conservatives are part of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) (05). They helped set it up and it's a little bitty thing consisting of about 48 MEPs, so they've aligned with the European Christian Political Movement to beef their numbers to about 72, making it the third largest block. Labour are part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (06). This is the second largest block of 191 MEPs and has considerable clout in Brussels. The LibDems have thrown their lot in with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (07) and is the fourth largest grouping. The SNP and the Greens have sided with the the Greens/European Free Alliance which is one of the oldest blocks, but still way down the pecking order at number 6 in Brussels. UKIP helped form the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group. That's had a chequered history since its inception in 2014 (08) and is the smallest grouping.
Not one single British party has a voice in the largest group within the Parliament - the Group of the European People's Party (09). That's ostensibly a mild centre right block with lots of MEPs from Germany. Our Tories used to be a part of that group, but it's real big and their twenty or so MEPs didn't have much influence, hence their initiative to form a new block in 2009.
But that's PR, it's very fluid with one block siding with another when it suits, always with some sort of reciprocal deal negotiated behind the scenes. And being a part of a recognized block's very good within the EU because they get money and the chance to speak in Parliament. Those who can't form a block of their own are left to vote as individuals. They're described as "Non-Attached Members" (10) and include the Dutch Freedom Party, the French Front National, the Golden Dawn from Greece and Jobick out of Hungary.
It may surprise some people in all those countries to learn that their elected representatives don't amount to a fart in a hurricane in the overall scheme of things. With 751 MEPs in Brussels, the chances of Jobick - with all of 3 MEPs - getting air time in Parliament is zero. That leaves only the ever present media, which was where Mr. Griffin of the BNP came unstuck with his suggestion that EU Navy ships fire live warning shots across the bows of vessels known to be carrying economic migrants.
For many years UKIP was itself lumped in with the Non-Attached Members, however it's to the credit of Mr. Farage as an organiser and politician that he managed to form the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy block - and a huge part of that block is the Italian Five Star Movement. They've got 17 MEPs and it was they who insisted the name change to include the word Direct. They're in favour of direct participation and seeking feedback from their members as well the voting public, which sounds good to me. One benefit of this tie-up were those on-line questionnaires UKIP had on their website before they issued their election manifesto. Quite a lot of what's in their manifesto came from Joe Public which, as I see it, is exactly the way things should be in politics.
As a part of this block, they get lots of things that are important to politicians. And if that makes them more effective in Brussels then that's fine with me. The fact they're learning from the Five Star movement is no bad thing either.
PR in the UK?
We had a taste of what things might be like with the Conservative/LibDem coalition. We in Scotland had many years of coalition government and they muddled through on compromise, favors and "solidarity". Coalitions and PR are the norm elsewhere in Europe, with Finland expected to sort something out within about six weeks of their election; broadly a coalition of just 3 parties instead of the six they had before the election (11).
Germany has 3 parties in their ruling coalition - and the price demanded by one was a hike in the minimum wage. This is commonplace and Mr. Clegg tried to get PR as part of the deal for his party's support of the Conservatives. Cameron would have none of that, however he agreed to match Brown's offer of a referendum on the Alternative Vote (12). So, putting on a brave face, Clegg did his best to sell us a sows ear, which we didn't like and rejected it by an overwhelming majority.
So that's no longer an option, however there are valid points being made about the result of the 2015 general election and the way the SNP have benefited by First Past the Post, while the Greens and UKIP have not. And this leaves us with the option similar to what we have in Scotland where some MSPs are elected by FPP and others by a form of PR. Or outright PR.
Looking at the way the election may have panned out under PR, it's obvious that both the Greens and UKIP would have been the greatest winners (13). Yet that would have resulted in a very messy coalition, probably headed up by the Tories and supported by UKIP and the LibDems. Three parties, each with their own set of values and two demanding their pet projects be included in the coalition agreement. We're talking weeks, possibly months of negotiations.
The alternative would be even less representative of voters wishes: an anti-Tory coalition headed up by Labour and propped up by all others. Too horrific to consider.
Proportional Representation will be discussed and even demanded by those who feel the the ballot box should reflect the wishes of the people. It's very seductive, but it won't happen in this parliament. The only way it's ever going to happen is when either Labour or the Conservatives end up with the largest share of the vote, but must have the support of any of the four smaller parties to form a government.
The LibDems, Greens and the SNP are committed to PR. UKIP want a system that's similar to Scotland. They each have every right to insist on electoral reform as a key condition of any coalition deal.
There are very serious drawbacks to PR and moving away from the familiar, as Jackart explains (14). Yet the reason why we're seriously considering the inevitability of PR is because we've got the choice of so many parties. I've mentioned the big two, namely the Greens and UKIP and they took just over 5 million votes (16.4%), however the rest are lumped under "others" at Wiki (15). They managed to garner support from 346,000 people and took 1.1% of the vote. I see several dozen there and while most will fizzle out, those with a compelling message will be gearing up for the EU elections, because these elections give them a fighting chance.
In the meantime, the 17.5% of us who voted for the "smaller" parties undoubtedly made a difference in several constituencies. This time the winner was the Conservative Party - and that (many speculate) is because people who were inclined to vote UKIP chose to vote Conservative at the last minute, simply to keep Miliband away from the seat of power. This bodes well for UKIP's chances in all by-elections over the next five years.
There's much speculation that UKIP will crash and burn after the EU referendum. They will not. For sure some froth may disappear but for many it's not their position on the EU that's important. Of the 100 reasons UKIP gave for why we should vote for them, pretty close to 90 seemed sensible to me, especially their undertaking to allow indoor smoking rooms. No other mainstream party will ever dare include that in their manifesto.
However, if through some extreme brain-fart, Labour or the LibDems did a 180, I still won't give them my vote. I loathe their policies and I will never forgive them for my personal inconvenience, their support of the healthists, nor the damage done to our social infrastructure.
I like the fact so many people in office and behind the scenes in UKIP talk sense using language I understand. They're not all paragons of virtue, they make mistakes... sometimes pretty big ones as well. But the greatest advantage UKIP has is people like Phil Johnson, he of Handyman Phil (16), stood as a UKIP candidate in the Saffron Ward at the Leicester Council Elections and came third with 580 votes (17).
With people like Phil at the grass roots level in UKIP we can be certain they'll continue to reflect what's important to ordinary people. That's why they've gained in popularity and if the price for better governance is proportional representation and our withdrawal from the EU, then so be it - though we must retain the metric system of weights and measures!