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Friday 20 January 2017

Opinion: Brexit's impact on Ireland's MEP numbers merits closer scrutiny

Downing on politics

Published 24/11/2016 | 06:30

Mairead McGuinness
Mairead McGuinness

Brexit could give Ireland one extra MEP, bringing the country's European Parliament membership to 12. Now, that's not the most reach-out-and-grab-you introduction to encourage the reader.

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But stay with me, because it is a significant issue for Irish farming, food production and sales. The reality is that the European Parliament has never been unkind to Ireland, as it has consistently advocated proper funding for regional development and schemes like Leader, not to mention the operation of the CAP itself.

From the outset, Ireland's MEPs have advocated a case for rural Ireland and been an important listening post for the implications of EU policies on rural life. In the past we had IFA leaders TJ Maher, Paddy Lane and Alan Gillis, representing various parties, but articulating a strong rural message.

More recently, that tradition is being upheld by Máiréad McGuinness, tipped as a potential president of the parliament, and Marian Harkin, among others.

The parliament has also been gathering more power and influence over the past 25 years, and now has the ability to shape and veto EU laws.

For too long it was the poor relation in the apparatus. But these days the European Parliament cannot be ignored.

The fallout from Brexit is that Britain will lose its 73 MEPs at the next elections in May 2019. That is just after Britain should have concluded its EU divorce proceedings in April 2019.

But it very probably would make more sense to abolish the UK's parliament allocation - rather than re-allocate them across the other 27 member states.

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EU rules currently cap the number of MEPs for the 28 member states at 751. But there is no legal requirement to keep the maximum.

Dublin Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes argues Ireland would have more influence in a slimmed-down European Parliament. But a decision on this issue will have to be made soon, as the clock is ticking.

Mr Hayes said the rules only stipulate the maximum and minimum number a Member State can have. Germany has the maximum amount of 96, while Malta has the minimum of six."

"If the reallocation of seats occurs ahead of the European Elections in May 2019, it has been reported that Ireland could gain one extra MEP seat," said Brian Hayes. "Having one extra Irish MEP, in a circumstance where larger member states gain significantly more MEPs, would not extend Ireland's influence in Parliament. In fact having a smaller parliament may help to give us more influence.

"The British seats should instead be reserved for future EU enlargement. I also believe there is a need to keep the number of seats consistent. Because of EU enlargement, the number of Irish MEPs has decreased over recent years. In 2004, Ireland elected 15 MEPs, in 2009, 12 MEPs, and in 2014, 11 MEPs."

He concluded: "Rather than increasing the number once again and then potentially decreasing it after the next phase of enlargement, it would be better to keep the number at 11 seats." It is a pretty smart line of argument and worthy of attention.

The list of potential fallout issues from Brexit is already extensive and growing. The danger is that this one could be neglected before it gets too late.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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