ON THURSDAY (May 22), residents across Worcestershire and the rest of the UK will be off to the polls for the European elections.
This week, ahead of the big vote, a debate was held at St Andrews Town Hotel in nearby Droitwich where a hustings featuring five West Midlands candidates was held.
Among them were Alex Avern (Conservative), Phil Bennion (Liberal Democrat), James Carver (UKIP), Nikki Sinclaire (We Demand a Referendum) and Lynda Waltho (Labour).
The event was organised by Karen Tomalin of TLC Business and Networking, and was chaired by former BBC Hereford and Worcester radio presenter Tony Fisher.
The first question from the floor was what the candidates thought of having an EU referendum.
Ms Avern said a referendum could only be given by a national government, but added these elections were important so David Cameron could have a good team of Conservative MEPs behind him.
She added between now and 2017 – when Mr Cameron has said there would be a referendum – the Tories would battle to get the best deal – she said Conservatives had already helped cut the EU budget by £8million and taken Britain out of the EU bailout zone.
Ms Waltho said only the general election could give the people a referendum.
“These elections are for a living, breathing parliament that’s happening now that is taking decisions, making investment choices and giving grants – all the things the EU is doing.” she added.
Mr Bennion said the Lib Dems would support a referendum at the next treaty change if there were plans to move any further powers to the EU. He claimed the UK could not renegotiate a deal before 2017.
Ms Sinclaire said the Conservatives did not want to give a referendum and it was her national campaign and a 220,000 strong petition being taken to Downing Street which got Mr Cameron to the dispatch box.
Mr Carver said – according to German chancellor Angela Merkel, the president of the EU Commission and the deputy president of the EU Commission – the renegotiation the Conservatives spoke about was not an option.
One audience member pointed out no one had been given the chance to vote on European political union. He said what people originally voted on was the Common Market – a free trade agreement. He questioned why a political element was even needed in Europe.
Mr Bennion said: “The political dimension of Europe has gone further than it needed to.”
He added what the UK was in was a free trade agreement which led to less barriers and paperwork.
A business owner questioned that and said delivery of items his company had sent to Europe had been held up by EU bureaucracy.
Mr Bennion replied by saying that should not have happened and what the businessman had said had been contradicted by what the EEF(European Economic Fund) had said.
Labour’s Ms Waltho said single markets generally worked well and changes to the EU had come through democracy. She added people had been given the chance to have their say at every general election when parties’ candidates told the electorate what they had planned for to do about Europe.
Reflecting on comments made, host Mr Foster questioned the candidates on whether the general public were getting enough information on the European Union.
Ms Sinclaire said that was the reason she advocated a complete debate on the EU.
“We have been deceived by the main parties.
“It’s for the people of this country to go beyond the usual parties and demand a referendum.
“We cannot trust these people with the sovereignty of our country.”
She called for an independent panel to be set up to scrutinise the EU and the facts surrounding it – how much it costs a day, the laws it makes and how many jobs depended on it.
Mr Bennion rounded on the British press, saying proceedings at Brussels were not reported. He said when he was at the EU, reporters were there from other countries, but not the UK.
He added the press needed to engage more and report both the positive and the negative.
And he added the British Government needed to do the same.
Mr Carver claimed the journey towards a federal Europe had been allowed to carry on. And he claimed, because the UK only had eight per cent of the vote on the Council of Ministers, of the 55 times Britain had tried to veto European legislation, it had been over-ruled 55 times.
Ms Avern said she agreed with Mr Bennion over the lack of media coverage and the Labour candidate said the way MEPs were elected – using proportional representation – had also made it difficult for people to engage with the EU. She said the previous system was better where MEPs represented areas rather than a whole region.
A question was asked about whether too much emphasis was placed on trading within the European Union and not the rest of the world.
Ms Sinclaire said wherever she had gone at the EU HQ in Brussels, she had never seen a map of the world.
“If you look at a map of the world, you see how insignificant the European Union is.”
Mr Carver said the world was a smaller place today, adding: “Countries do not trade with countries, companies trade with companies.
“If we left the European Union, it would show how much we can succeed against it.
“Outside the European Union, our businesses will thrive without being tied down by this burden and bureaucracy.”
Trainee chartered accountant Ms Avern said she agreed with Mr Carver that it was politicians talking about the European Union and companies she worked with were trading all over the world. She added the Single Market, although not perfect, was a good thing,
Mr Bennion said he agreed with Mr Carver and Ms Avern and felt companies were not focusing entirely on Europe and they were happy trading in the EU, in the US and beyond.
Other questions featured issues, including social housing and cross-border crime.
Candidates were also asked about what Europe did best. Here’s what they had to say.
Mr Bennion: “Delivering the single market.”
Ms Sinclaire: “It is a mixture of cultures, which can never be a bad thing, apart from the Eurovision Song Contest.”
Ms Avern: “Working together on issues, such as the environment – air and water know no boundaries.”
Ms Waltho: “I agree with Ms Avern, it is about cross-border working, dealing with issues we cannot deal with specifically on our own.”
Mr Carver: “The best thing Europe does is food, but we are talking about the European Union.
“The beauty of Europe is its diversity – the 28 member states. When you go out, you don’t say I went out for a European, because it does not exist.
“You say you went out for a Spanish, or a French.” He added maybe one day we would realise that.