European elections 2014: Mr Hughes, what did you achieve as an MEP ?
In view of the elections to the European Parliament on 25 May, Europeinfos is conducting a series of interviews to illuminate the role and mission of Members of the European Parliament.
Stephen Hughes is Labour Member of the European Parliament for the North East Region (UK). He was elected in June 1984. He will retire from the European Parliament at the next European elections.
What would you say is your greatest achievement in your current mandate?
During the last five years, as first vice president of the Socialist and Democratic Group, I have been responsible for a range of policy areas including the economy, employment and social policy, and internal market policy. This period also happens to have witnessed the worst economic and financial crisis in the history of the EU.
I have worked hard to promote a range of policies we have grouped under the heading “A Fair Way Out of the Crisis”. These amount to a set of ideas designed to reduce debt and deficit levels in a fair and equitable way, maintaining essential areas of public spending to mitigate against rising levels of poverty and deprivation and maintaining spending on certain areas of investment essential for future recovery and prosperity —for example, education. This lead to the setting up of a project entitled “Progressive Economy” bringing together three outside, independent academic institutes to work with the Group to set up an alternative econometric model to that operated by the European Commission and to develop alternative policy options in our “Alternative Annual European Growth Survey” (AEGS). After only two years of operation this work has had a clear impact upon the damaging policies which were being pursued by the European Commission. Witness, for example, the way in which they have stepped back (not yet far enough) from the damaging forced diet of rapid fiscal consolidation (debt and deficit reduction) to a more sensible pace. This was one of the central demands of our first AEGS. Information on the Progressive Economy initiative can be found here.
What would you say is your greatest achievement in your time as an MEP
There are two things I’m most happy to have helped bring about.
Firstly, I instigated a successful change in EU law to spur the introduction of safe devices to replace traditional hypodermic needles that were causing 2 million needle-stick injuries each year in the EU. It is very easy for a worker – most often, but not only, health care workers – to accidentally stick themselves with an uncapped, used, needle. When that happens, the injured worker is at risk from a significant number of blood-borne pathogens, including HIV AIDS and the various forms of hepatitis. The new devices automatically shield or retract the needle upon use. The use of the new devices is increasing in most member states as a result of the change in the law.
Secondly, I helped to put in place and secure EU funding for a health and safety programme in China to reduce the number of Chinese coal miners dying in mine accidents and explosions. The idea is a simple one – fund the transfer of knowledge and experience of safe coal mining techniques from Europe to China. The knowledge comes, in part, from the wealth of research funded during the 50-year life of the European Coal and Steel Community. The experience is to be found among the European workforce who worked the coal in a number of EU countries building up safe systems of work. The number of deaths in Chinese coal mines has halved in recent years and I like to think the programme has helped bring that about. When I was a child practically all of the male members of my family were coal miners, including my own father.
Could you identify your worst experience?
Knocking on the door of an older lady, probably in her mid-80’s during the last European elections, in the midst of the Westminster MP’s expenses scandal. She answered my knock and when I asked her if she would vote for me she burst into tears and said she wouldn’t be voting for anyone because none of us could be trusted. The first time in her adult life she would not be voting. I gave her a hug and patted her back as she sobbed uncontrollably. I left feeling desolate.
How do you interpret the core of your role as an MEP?
To represent the interests of my constituents and working people everywhere to the best of my ability.
Which political figure most inspired your engagement in politics and in European Politics?
My engagement in politics was probably most inspired by Emanuel (Manny) Shinwell who was MP for Easington, my home area, when I was a child. I have a vivid memory of his campaign van arriving at the village green and of Manny climbing onto the roof with a megaphone and challenging families to come out to listen and to challenge him in turn.
My engagement in European politics has probably been most inspired by François Mitterrand. Though history now shows he was far from perfect (which of us is?) I will never forget his final address to the European Parliament. Though he was close to death – gaunt and yellow skinned from the cancer that was eating away at him – he gave a truly inspiring speech on the importance of European unity.
What is lacking, in your view, in the organisational structure or the action/remit of the EU Parliament? Where, in your opinion, is urgent reform needed?
The greatest lack right now and the issue most urgently needing attention is the growth of inter-governmentalism and the undermining of the community method. What does this jargon mean? It means that on practically every significant issue the governments try to patch together solutions themselves by-passing the European Commission and the European Parliament. Just look at the range of responses they have put in place to govern macro-economic policy in the face of the economic crisis. This undermines and weakens Europe’s institutions, it saps away the force of truly concerted European responses and, perhaps most important, it is anti-democratic. It feeds disenchantment with and ambivalence toward Europe’s institutions and feeds the impression that they are ineffective. How can they be effective if they have control wrested from them?
The interview was conducted by Stephen Rooney