What do Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and the Chief Rabbi have in common? It may sound like a joke but the answer is they have all given speeches to the European Parliament in the past year.
All this reflects a renewed interest in the Parliament. The Conservative Daniel Hannan’s savage riposte to the Prime Minister’s speech to MEPs in Strasbourg in March attracted a cult following on Youtube.
So when Britain goes to the polls next Thursday to elect MEPs, what exactly will be at stake? The paradoxical thing about European elections is that they are fought on national issues. This time around, the MPs’ expenses debacle is at the forefront of most voters’ minds. In consequence, a great many people are reluctant even to cast their vote, certainly for MPs from the three main parties.
For the Jewish community, however, there are two very strong reasons for voting on June 4. The first is the potential for the far-right to make significant inroads at the ballot box. The BNP looks set to capture its first seats in the European Parliament, to add to its one member of the London Assembly, and a number of local council seats. In the last European elections in 2004, the BNP gained more than 800,000 votes, but did not obtain a single seat (largely due to UKIP’s strong showing). This time, polls suggest they could do even better. They are bound to benefit from current public anger and disenchantment towards the political establishment.
Each seat gained allows the BNP to access resources for offices and staff (six seats would yield £2m in funding). And its presence in the Parliament would enable it to link up with fellow fascists including European fascism’s modern father-figure, Jean Marie Le-Pen.
A less obvious reason for the British Jewish community — the second largest in Europe — to take these elections seriously derives from the European legislative process. A number of the public policy issues affecting British Jewry and its sister communities across Europe are shaped at EU level. This is not about whether you are a Euro-federalist or Eurosceptic, it is the reality of modern political decision-making.
Decisions on mobile phone charges and chemical waste are one thing. But the EU has also been taking more of an interest in matters directly affecting faith communities, such as medical ethics, food labelling, hate crime and discrimination. Therefore the Parliament has the potential to influence rules on important issues such as organ donation and shechita.
The recent decision by the Parliament’s agricultural committee to enshrine shechita in European law is a case in point. Next time kosher meat production is attacked in the UK, campaigners will be able to point to the EU safeguards. Recognising the growing importance of the Brussels architecture, it is no accident that the Church of England has recently set up an office there. Jewish groups are already well represented through the European Jewish Congress and other bodies. The Parliament’s reputation has not been enhanced by its own expenses scandal involving MEPs, but it is growing in importance.
In 2004, the UK turnout for the European elections was 38 per cent and the time before that a dismal 24 per cent, the lowest for any EU member state. All the more reason for us, as Jews, to get to the ballot box on June 4.