A glimpse inside the European Parliament

Siobhan Vye shares her experience of spending three days in the European Parliament with Julie Girling MEP, as part of our 2016 Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme.

Outside the European Parliament
Outside the European Parliament Siobhan Vye

“You’re going to shadow a UK MEP after the referendum? That should be interesting…” That was the reaction I received from most people I told about my impending trip to Brussels in November. The trip didn’t disappoint; it was indeed interesting, more so than I had imagined and not just because of Brexit.

First impressions

On my arrival at the imposing European Parliament building in Brussels, Alison, an assistant to Julie Girling MEP met me, guided me through the security checks and almost straight through to the first meeting. The first afternoon passed in a blur of meetings across diverse topics such as the European energy sector, organic regulations, palm oil, deforestation and mining waste. A large proportion of the afternoon was taken up by a Committee on the Environment meeting (ENVI). The Committee meeting began with a speech by the rapporteur, or lead MEP, on a motion for a European Parliament resolution regarding the regulation of palm oil and deforestation, highlighting that Europe is the 3rd largest market for palm oil and therefore can have a substantial role in its sustainable production. This was followed by an exchange of views with other members of the committee.

Following the palm oil discussion there were exchanges of views with representatives from the European Commission on regulations regarding mining waste management legislation and CETA. The views of the committee on CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, widely differed and there were some robust points put across to the European Commission representatives by MEPs. Throughout the afternoon, I was beginning to get a feel for the complexities of the European Parliament and the wide range of topics even a single MEP or committee are involved in.

Getting up to speed

The next morning we were up bright and early ready for the voting session of the ENVI committee, where MEPs in the committee vote to pass amendments to various pieces of legislation. Voting is fast. There were hundreds of different amendments to vote on within a limited time period. Although it was all recorded electronically, there is still the traditional raising of hands. Leaders of the political alliances within the committees use hand signals to communicate to MEPs that are member of that party or alliance the way the alliance wishes them to vote.

During the rest of the morning’s meetings, I had to rapidly get up to speed with the processes of the European Parliament in order to keep up with the relevance of the discussions, so I was grateful for a brief lull during the mid-afternoon. Julie’s staff had spied an event they thought I may be interested in… a panel discussion with Professor Richard Dawkins on the role of secularism and atheism in Europe and politics. This event started with a bang as Professor Dawkins expressed his strong views on the result of the referendum, which proved too much for one member of the audience. All too soon, more meetings called and I had to sneak away to sit in on my first shadow rapporteurs meeting with Julie. Shadow rapporteurs work with the rapporteurs to develop legislation before presenting it to the wider committees for discussion. There were two shadow rapporteurs meetings that afternoon, one on the regulation of organic materials and one on mercury regulation finishing at 8 p.m. in the evening.

The complexities of Brexit

The third day was a little less hectic, however, still involved being at the Parliament building before 8 a.m. to attend a breakfast function. Julie and the Air Transport Action Group were holding a breakfast briefing for interested parties on the carbon offsetting scheme launched by the International Civil Aviation Organization. For the rest of the morning, Julie had meetings with government ministers who were visiting in Brussels. Following on from this, I got my first real view of the politics of the European Parliament at the weekly meeting of the European Conservatives and Reformists, the European political alliance that Conservative MEPs belong to. The political parties in the European Parliament tend to encompass a broad range of political leanings into singular groups, so there can be a wide range of opposing views within the same party.

To finish my three days in the European Parliament, I had the opportunity to sit down with a policy advisor and chat through some of my interests: how Brexit was going to affect environmental policy in the UK in the future. This discussion highlighted for me the complexities of Brexit for the UK. Leaving the EU may be as simple as a single bill passed through the UK parliament, yet filling the gaps in policy left by EU legislation and regulations could be far more complicated owing to complexities in UK government, such as devolution.

Final reflections

After three hectic days, I headed back to Wales to reflect on my experience. I left Julie and her team with a new found respect for hard working MEPs and their staff who work long hours to ensure that European legislation reflects the best interests of their constituents, is based on evidence and makes logical sense. It also became clear through the shadowing that we as scientists must shout about our findings and engage proactively with policymakers in order for key scientific evidence to stand the best possible chance of filtering down to the policymaking stage. Words cannot describe the amount of information that passes through a MEP’s office in a single day, therefore, hoping they stumble upon those policy relevant findings isn’t enough. It is fair to say, I also left the Parliament with a greater understanding of some of its perceived flaws, but also in the sobering knowledge that soon we will no longer be able to change it for the better. The UK will have lost an opportunity to influence environmental policy at a scale relevant to many of the challenges our ecosystems face today and in the future.

Siobhan Vye was one of the participants in our 2016 Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme, which will be repeated in 2017. Find out more about the available opportunities.