The BES parliamentary shadowing Scheme: a trip to Brussels

As we open applications for this year’s parliamentary shadowing scheme, Rory O’Connor reflects on his 2015 experience shadowing Julie Girling MEP.

Entrance to the European Parliament, Brussels
Entrance to the European Parliament, Brussels Rory O'Connor

On October 12th 2015 I took my first ever trip on the Eurostar and headed for Brussels to spend two days shadowing Julie Girling, Conservative Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the South West of England and Gibraltar.

When I arrived outside of the European Parliament the following morning (along with what felt like an arctic wind) Julie was already busy in a two-hour meeting with other MEPs, voting on 1332(!) proposed amendments to legislation on organic agriculture.

Alison, one of Julie’s brilliant staff, got me through security, introduced me to the rest of Julie’s team, made sure I was caffeinated and then took me to experience a key part of an MEP’s work – a committee meeting.

Committee meetings – No school assembly

Committees are groups of MEPs, who scrutinise the activities of the European Commission in specific areas. Over my two days I periodically sat in on a meeting of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI for short). This was no school assembly – whilst I listened courteously (thanks to the translators) the room was abuzz. Hushed and not so hushed conversations between MEPs and their staff were occurring and people were dashing in and out to keep track of what was happening in parallel meetings.

Diverse topics were covered on day one: including vetting a candidate for Director of the European Medicines Agency, progress on the Water Frameworks Directive and a grilling of the Executive Director of the European Chemical Agency about the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation. Julie, now free from voting, asked him how the challenges of regulatory alignment in the face of The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) were being approached.

The ever present TTIP

TTIP cropped up a lot over my two days. The challenges of aligning legislation and regulation through this bilateral trade agreement between the EU and US seemed to enter into all quarters, many of which had never even entered my consciousness. For example, at an event on my second day I heard that whilst a new market may open up for cuts of beef underutilised in Europe (hundreds of thousands of tons!), there was huge concern about lower welfare and environmental standards in the US making European meat uncompetitive.

Making amendments – a tricky business

On the second day the ENVI Committee re-convened to discuss the issue of vehicle emissions. The Volkswagen emissions scandal was very recent and MEPs had a lot of questions for the Commission as to how this had happened and the adequacy of current EU regulations. Subsequently a Committee of Inquiry was set up to investigated the failures of the European Commission and Member States to stop such contraventions.

When a committee conducts an inquiry a nominated Rapporteur must lead, and produce a report proposing amendments to legislation which committee members then vote on. Approved proposals are then taken to plenary (in Strasbourg) where they are voted on by the whole Parliament. During my visit Julie was very occupied by her role as Rapporteur on the National Emission Ceilings Directive. Gas emissions from industry and farming present threats to human health and the environment, and it was Julie’s job to present amendments to current emissions targets for different countries. This utilised evidence from research, but was also an excellent reminder for me that scientific evidence is just one informer of policy decisions.

Regulation places restrictions on industries, making for a contentious debate around targets. I witnessed discussions with a charity representing those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and then representatives from a country’s agricultural ministry, respectively putting their cases forward for more and less restrictive proposals. Rapporteurs have a balancing act to play in making sure amendments get supported by a committee made up of MEPs, who represent different countries interests and bring different personal perspectives to the table.

What did I learn?

A lot was packed into my visit, but I’ve tried to give you a flavour of what I experienced and learned. Brexit has since have been activated, but for now we remain members of the EU and if we ever get round to leaving its machinations will not doubt remain extremely relevant to policy and research in the UK and globally.

In many ways I felt the European Parliament was similar to the House of Commons; members are elected by their respective constituencies to represent them, there are just a lot more constituents! Representing constituents is part of the job and e-mails on this alone kept one of Julie’s four strong team very busy. MEPs use committees to scrutinise and alter the activities of the European Council, as our Parliament uses select committees to scrutinise the Government.

The process is iterative, laborious and confusing, but when a group of 27 Member states with diverse national identities send a total of 736 representatives to make decisions I think this is to be expected. To add another layer of politics, whilst MEPs may be a member of a party back home, they must also align themselves to a political group in the EU. These are groups of similar political persuasions which co-operate with each other to achieve a critical mass for voting.

With my researcher hat on I came away with a strong reminder that when it comes to policy making, scientific evidence is just one tool for making decisions and if our research is to inform policy we have to make it, and ourselves, accessible to decision-makers. Seeing first-hand the multitude of tasks Julie and her team were juggling, I can see how accessibility could make a lot of difference to whether decision-makers hear what you have to say. Also, having had the opportunity to learn a small bit about how the European Parliament works, it feels far more accessible to me.

I had a wonderful and enlightening experience with Julie and her team, and can’t thank them and the BES enough for the opportunity. I encourage all to apply….especially as it soon might not be an option!

The 2016 parliamentary shadowing scheme is now open, with placements currently available with Julie Girling MEP, and Roseanna Cunningham MSP. Find out more and apply before Monday 17 October.