The EU decides on regulation that affects all citizens and it also has the power to be a force on the world stage. The complete lack of attention paid to what goes on in Brussels is a result of convenience on the part of our national politicians, and timidity and a failure of communication on the part of our media and civil society.

Even by the very poor standards of the ‘representative’ model currently operating at the EU – just 34% of the British public voted in 2009 – British people don’t have much of a say on the laws that the EU makes. No British MEP is a member of the most powerful legislative force in the EU – namely, the European People’s Party (because the Conservatives pulled out of this). I have no clue if anyone is fighting for what I believe in at the European Commission – I don’t even know how I’d begin to find out?

But why should anyone be bothered about this? After all, we pay an amount equal to only 1% of our GDP to the EU, which reaches only the farmers who benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies and the beneficiaries from the odd bit of infrastructure paid for by the Structural and Cohesion funds. When compared to the amount equal to 35% of GDP that we give to our national government, you could ask ‘why should we be interested?’

These crude budgetary numbers miss the point; EU’s main impact is regulatory. Most Britons pay the carbon tax via Europe’s carbon trading scheme, feel the impact of free labour movement of labour as people from new member states come and work for higher wages than they would receive elsewhere, or have to comply by European regulations on the activity of the business and third sectors.

In Britain’s case, public and media deliberation about these issues is absent not only because of the disconnect with the European politicians passing these laws but also because of other difficulties. Some subject are genuinely very complex and therefore don’t lend themselves to sound-bites in the news, discussion at Question Time or headlines in the papers – business regulation is a case in point. Some are both genuinely complex and politically sensitive due to both the ruling party’s poor record in the area history and due to the existence of extremist competition – the impact upon communities of free movement of labour. In the case of the Conservative Party they completely ignore the issue of Europe for fear of another civil war.

As well as a regulatory role, the EU also has a major role to play in helping our respective nations solve global problems; the work that European states do to combat complex problems like terrorism, extreme poverty and climate change could be done far more effectively together as the EU. That may be true, but an institution that lives in a vacuum, free of any significant degree of representation and accountability, should not be doing that work. Which Europeans could name the EU’s High Representative in Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton, never mind her top three foreign policy priorities? Yet she is the woman who will pick up the phone when Hilary Clinton phones Europe. The chains of accountability and clarity over who was negotiating on behalf of the EU position at the recent Copenhagen summit were murky at best.

Instead of real debate we have politicians deflect public criticism of the EU and its legislation with the old arguments for a single market and regional peace; ‘The EU has brought us many benefits and is vital for what economic prosperity we have’. Civil society and the media should look to fill this gap in the dialogue and do their best to make these issues a priority for discussion given the shocking lack of engagement by our politicians. Without this or any other scrutiny, EU policies will reflect only the interests of those lobby groups who can afford to wine and dine MEPs and European civil servants in Brussels.

The one spanner in the works to a sea of disengagement from European politics is the article in the Lisbon constitution that says that a petition of 1 million European citizens forces the Commission to write a proposal on the subject. Could this signal a great experiment of the EU as an institution that uses its unique position to experiment with innovative means of representation, or does it signal a half-hearted measure to appease the calls for more representation?

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