Sunday, May 23, 2004

Value for money

Give or take a few thousand quid, each MEP we elect costs the British taxpayer £1.2 million a year, in salary, expenses and overheads. Over the five years of a parliamentary term, therefore, each of the 87 individuals we send to the European parliament costs us £6 million – a grand total of £522 million. That is well over half a billion pounds, more even than the exorbitant £460 million cost of building the Scottish parliament.

For that money, one would expect something really first rate in return, so it was interesting to read, in the run-up to the Euro-elections, a 1500-word political interview in the Herald on Sunday, devoted to 30-year-old Catherine Stihler, Labour MEP

Penetrating the guff, however, is not easy. We learn that Stihler is a "bundle of energy", she will be running in the Edinburgh marathon on 13 June and she was told by she was told by her secondary school guidance teacher in second year that she was a born enthusiast. Not a lot for £6 million so far.

He main complaint, it seems is that "Inaccurate reporting leads people to think the EU is about straight bananas, triviality, rather than the nitty-gritty of THE work", (emphasis in the original) which leaves us all agog to hear more about THE work, nitty-gritty and all.

What we get from the Herald, though, is "Stihler is one of those people for whom the European project was created. She has a passion for legislating. Regulatory devices seem to course through her blood". Now there's a thing. But where’s the beef?

Well, for Stihler, "Europe is the means to ensure better working hours, better maternity and paternity leave, better food labelling, better access to drug treatments for multiple sclerosis sufferers. She paints a picture of a Brussels which benignly embraces betterness, and evangelically enthuses about the way it affects the day-to-day lives of Scots".

And now we get down to detail. "The MEP points to a packet of cigarettes at the next table, where a young woman is smoking. Her life has, in a way, already been bettered by Stihler. The packet no longer entices women with softening words like 'lite', 'ultra' or 'mild'. It has huge letters on it, with the type of dire health warning that could have come from Free Kirk copywriters."


But it gets better.

"Stihler lays claim to having taken on the formidable lobbying power of Big Tobacco and won. The legislative amendment she tabled and then spent two years pushing through the processes of Euro law-making allowed for the 25 EU member states to make the health warning more prominent, ban the 'lite; marketing ploys and force manufacturers to list their contents."

And even better.

"What comes next – and she seems gruesomely proud of this – is a proposed new move for cigarette packets in Britain to display graphic pictures of the havoc the evil weed wreaks on the human body. 'They’ll use whatever means necessary to get their perspective across,' she says, pledging to do likewise. Her spiel travels instantly to a visit to an Aids project in Kenya (another of her causes) where cigarettes were being given away free". "I’ll do everything I can to fight against the tobacco industry," she says.

And then?

"But for now, her battle is an uphill one with voters and their perception of Europe. It must surely be frustrating seeing the EU ignored or inaccurately reported by the UK media, but even that does not get Stihler down: 'When there is frustration, I look for a way forward and a solution to it. We have a unique situation in the UK, with the press we have. About 80% of what I read about the European Union has an inaccuracy in the story. That leads people to think the EU is about straight bananas, about the triviality, rather than the nitty-gritty of the work that goes on day-to-day.'"

And for the grand finale:

"The image of Europe has people asking ‘Why are you doing this, and why are you involved with that?’ Yet all of the good things that come out of the work we do on legislation is not heard. We have to do a better job of selling things and saying why we’re doing what we do, why it’s better for consumers and better for the quality of life you want to lead."

That, basically is it - £6 million on the hoof and all we get is gruesome pictures on our fag packets. Some deal.

Just for the record, it costs about £10 million a year to run a fully equipped infantry battalion. For the price of 87 MEPs, we could have had ten such battalions. No guesses which would have increased out influence more – and we could have had the gruesome pictures thrown in for nothing – if our own MPs had wanted them.

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