This article first appeared at The Guardian online on 10 April
Arriving in Brussels was like the first day of school. There were hundreds of us, all coming from the four corners of the continent, to be inducted as MEPs. Exactly as I would have done at school, I made a beeline for the only people I recognised, my Labour colleagues.
As we chatted nervously, we were guided through various stations of induction: photograph, badge, finances, logistics, office accommodation and finally IT. I handed over my phone to be enabled, and within a few seconds I had an inbox full of hundreds of unread emails. I told the technician these couldn’t possibly be my emails: I had walked through the door only that day. “Welcome to the European parliament,” was his dry reply.
Since then the emails have never gone away, but the sense of not knowing what I am doing, thankfully, has. There is no question that this is a job where you learn on the go. There is no formula, no textbook and certainly no guide on what to do. It helps to have a firm idea of what your policy and campaign priorities will be and to make sure you devote the lion’s share of your attention to them. And now it looks like there’s a chance that a new crop of British MEPs will have the chance to influence European legislation.
I sit on the European parliament’s environment committee. The committee covers a huge range of issues, from food safety and medicines to emissions standards. I very quickly realised that air quality is an issue over which EU institutions have an enormous amount of leverage. Luckily, my time on the committee has coincided with a redraft of many of the European commission’s key policy proposals on cleaner air. I’ve used my role to push for the highest ambitions at a European level and to relate this back to what’s going on in London, which I represent.
Knowing which roles to try to secure was important. Having an expert in the parliament – MEP or not – to advise you on what to go for certainly helps. Whether or not you are a rapporteur (author) on a file or a co-ordinator (lead spokesperson for the political group) or a rather fancy-sounding Quaestor (MEP-rep on the Parliament’s executive) will depend on how much support you can garner from MEPs. Some of these posts mean getting support from MEPs from other political groups, and all require support from MEPs from other countries.
And this, in a nutshell, is why being an MEP is the best job in British politics. Each of our colleagues from 27 other countries around Europe has a different perspective and comes from a different political background. Each of them has a different story to tell and a different way of approaching the same problem. The way this parliament works is to forever seek compromise and to work towards a common goal. To do that properly, you have to understand where each side is coming from. Trying to master that is key.
As a single MEP you have an enormous amount of potential influence that a backbench MP in Westminster could only dream of. Whereas many criticise the European parliament for not being able to initiate legislation, the reality is that the parliament has a huge amount of scope to change and shape proposals that come from the commission. There is no government and no opposition. So you are not immediately locked out from the action if “your side” is not in power. The result is that in five short years, you can directly influence the course of hundreds of bits of legislation that shape lives in the UK and across the whole of Europe.
People say they don’t know who their MEP is, and it is certainly more of a challenge to connect to voters across the large regions we represent. But the lack of immediate recognition should not put people off. The reward of working across borders, putting forward solutions that will benefit the whole of our continent and reaching across political differences is more than enough. My hope is that another cohort of people from the UK, eager for change, is able to experience the joy of working in a place like this.