IT’S the $1.3 trillion budget that will be spent everywhere from Southampton to Sofia and Winchester to Warsaw.

The European Union’s (EU) sixyear budget is just one of the things the south east’s ten MEPs are responsible for voting for.

Next week, thousands of people across the region will turn out to vote in European elections at a time when there has never been a greater focus on the UK’s place within the EU.

And with 8.5 million residents and more MEPs than four of the EU’s other member states have for their entire country, the south east is set to be a key battleground in the elections on May 22. One of the first acts of the new parliament will be electing a new President of the European Commission, the body which puts forward legislation for MEPs and the council, made up of member-states’ ministers, to vote on.

But while the elections will have no bearing on whether the UK stays in the EU or not, the main issue being discussed before the vote is Britain’s place within the EU.

UKIP, which is currently out ahead of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in many polls, are at the forefront of the five parties, with candidates who want to see the country split from the EU, which it joined in 1973.

Ray Finch, a Hampshire county councillor and one of the party’s candidates in the European elections, said: “What people are talking to us about on the doorstep is the loss of control over immigration.

“It’s not that we have a problem with targeted immigration which can bring people in for specific jobs, it’s that we have no control because our Government has given up on any thought of taking it back.”

The party’s bid to increase the two seats won at the last elections, back in 2009, will be one of the subplots to this year’s vote.

Cllr Finch added that MEPs can “do nothing” within the parliament.

But while UKIP want out of the EU, other parties believe it is important both for the UK to stay in the EU, and also that MEPs have an important role to play within the organisation.

Labour candidate Anneliese Dodds says her party recognises a need for change within the EU, but argues that benefits for Hampshire and the rest of the south east can only be achieved by staying within the union.

She said: “We already have support from one of the two biggest groups of MEPs for the changes we want to see, so we can actually deliver them.

“The main area we want to see change in is to see the EU more focused on growth and supporting employment as opposed to the Common Agricultural Policy.”

And current Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder argues: “The EU is good for jobs – thousands of jobs in Hampshire depend on our links with the rest of the EU.

“It’s also good for security, as our police can coordinate with other forces across Europe.

“And we can only really bring in protection for our environment if we work across borders.

“Leaving the EU would be hugely damaging for the UK.”

Green Party MEP Keith Taylor says his party’s main objective if he or fellow candidates are elected will be to “create a Europe for the common good.”

His party are pushing for radical changes to the EU’s energy policy which will “put the environment at the centre of policy”

and see more sustainable sources used, while tackling ine quality across the Eurozone and animal welfare issues. He added: “In this election we are attempting to put people and the environment at the forefront.”

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said his party offers the “third way” in the European elections, between the pro and anti-EU camps, and will offer a guaranteed referendum on membership if they win next year’s General Election.

But many party MEPs remain staunchly Eurosceptic.

One of them, Marta Andreasen, who defected from UKIP last year, said: “The majority of my constituents feel that the EU needs to be reformed and that’s what the Prime Minister is proposing, so it is primarily a trading agreement.

“If elected, we want to defend the interests of British people in Brussels, like the legislation that affects British people, through Parliament.”

Hampshire and the EU

HAMPSHIRE and the European Union (EU) have a chequered history.

The union is seen as hugely important for the county’s key maritime industry, and last year the
European Investment Bank (EIB) rubberstamped a £70 million loan to carry out widespread improvements at Southampton’s docks.

But there have also been controversies in recent years, including the £80 million loan given by the EIB to Ford to move its Transit production plant away from Southampton – and the EU – to Turkey.

Politicians of all parties have also recently opposed plans to appoint regulators who would be able to intervene on prices within Southampton’s port.

While the EU says appointing a regulator will improve the performance of ports across Europe and create a better network, opponents say it will put jobs and investment at risk.

And the EU also recently ended the “cruise wars” between Southampton and Liverpool, by ratifying the spending of £17 million in public money for Liverpool’s new cruise terminal.

Politicians in Southampton had lobbied for its rival to hand back the money saying it constituted unfair competition.

Election Hustings

A SHOW of hands of the audience was good news for the Liberal Democrats at the packed Euro election hustings in Winchester last night.

Their candidate Catherine Bearder MEP clearly beat Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP.

There was further good news for the pro-Europeans as around two-thirds of the audience said they wanted to remain in the EU.

Earlier the candidates were asked about immigration, trade, jobs and energy.

On immigration Alan Stevens, for UKIP, said he favoured a points system which would see more skilled non-white, non-EU immigrants.

He added: “The EU is a jobs killer. In Hampshire the Ford factory was shipped out to Turkey with EU money.”

John Howarth, for Labour, said he knew of a young Pole from Southampton who had won entrepreneur of the year and now employed 35 British people.

“Immigration has not been bad for the British economy, but when the economy goes bad people
blame the immigrants. We have learned tolerance and we need to stop hatepeddling.”

Mr Hannan took a strong Eurosceptic line. “We are currently trapped in the only trade bloc on the planet that is shrinking economically. That is no place for a country like ours.”

Ms Bearder said thousands of British jobs would be lost if the UK left the EU. Southern-based firms Siemens, GEC, GKN, Unilever, Airbus and Nissan had all called for the UK to stay.

Keith Taylor, Green MEP, said it was vital to put people and the environment at the centre of things and not private profit. Around 150 people squeezed into the conference chamber in the Guildhall, a decent number although the meeting was originally booked for the much larger Bapsy Hall.

The hustings was organised by the crossparty European Movement. The polls are on May 22.

What do MEPs do?

THE European Parliament cannot put forward legislation, but alongside the European Council it is one of two bodies to vote for new laws.

Alongside the Budget, the Parliament’s 766 MEPs can approve, reject or amend laws affecting every walk of life, including ending roaming phone charges, approving safe lorry designs, capping bankers’ bonuses and of course the Budget.

Much of the Budget is spent on agriculture subsidies and regional aid to boost the economies of poor or struggling member states.

Funding also goes towards research and business innovation, education and crime and border control. They also approve new members of the European Commission, which is the body that puts forward new legislation.

They sit in a number of groups depending on their political views, ranging from the 274-strong European People’s Party, which no UK party is a member of, to the 33 members of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group which UKIP form part of.

The UK has 73 MEPs, with ten representing the south east, the most for any region.

At the last election in 2009, four Conservative MEPs were elected, alongside two for UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, and one each for Labour and the Green party.

The Tories now have five MEPs after UKIP’s Marta Andreasen defected to the party last year after she fell out with leader and fellow south east MEP Nigel Farage.