MEP numbers to fall Nov03

When it comes to the European Elections, our electoral system bewilders most voters. 'Who is my Member of the European Parliament? How many do we have from our region? How are they selected and elected why can I only vote for the Party?' are questions I hear all the time.


Until 1999, each county in East Anglia elected its own Member of the European Parliament (MEP) on a first past the post system. In 1999, despite Conservative opposition, the Government chose to switch to proportional representation and extended the constituency from counties to 'Eastern Region' comprising six counties (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire). This region of 5.5 million people would be represented by 8 MEPs.


Such an election based on proportional representation offers the electorate a choice of party but not of any specific candidate. Each party chooses its candidates and expresses preference on the ballot paper according to its own rules. Labour chooses centrally; the Liberals apply a gender equality rule and the Conservatives offer a free selection to their party members. The percentage of total votes cast determines the number of seats a party can claim out of the total (8 in 1999 and 7 in 2004 for Eastern Region).


It is not surprising that the UK turnout for the European Elections in 1994 was 36% whilst with proportional representation and a larger constituency in 1999 it dropped to 23% - the lowest in the European Union.


Our Region is represented by 57 MPs in Westminster but only 8 MEPs in Brussels. How can 8 people from 4 political parties represent and meet with so many constituents over such a vast constituency? Four elected Conservative MEPs in 1999 acknowledged this and the Party chose to divide the Eastern Region into four areas (Norfolk & Suffolk; Cambridgeshire &  Bedfordshire; Hertfordshire; Essex) offering each one of its MEPs the chance to serve in one area in particular and the Region in general.


I chose to serve the residents of Norfolk and Suffolk, although I regularly respond to farmers, small businessmen and industries in the other counties. In the European Parliament, I sit on the Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy Select Committee as well as the Committee for International Co-operation and Development. I have also taken a keen interest in health and environment, agriculture and fisheries, financial services, and fraud and mismanagement.


The next European Elections will take place on June 10, 2004. It will also see the accession of 10 new Member States bringing the total membership of the EU to 25 states with a population of almost 500 million. With this enlargement, it was announced last week that the UK's allocation of MEPs will drop from 87 to 78 and the Eastern Region will have only 7 MEPs!

The European Convention, which has produced draft proposals for the new constitution for the EU, will be ratified by the heads of the 15 Member States before the end of 2003. As the new constitution incorporates numerous major changes that will impact directly on the sovereignty of Westminster, it is essential that we have a referendum to allow the people to decide.


With only 7 MEPs in our Region, it is vital that our people assess the manifestos and quality of the candidates of each political party in order to choose what is best for them. This is why a high turnout is crucial at next year's elections for the prosperity of our Region.