Thursday 5 December 2019

European elections are more than a mere popularity contest

Richard Curran

Richard Curran

When voters go to the polls tomorrow, they are faced with two utterly different kinds of elections. One is all about what a local representative can do to help you with what are very local issues. The European Parliament elections, by contrast, could not be more different.

Large European constituencies see candidates from Meath listed on ballot papers in Donegal. The Strasbourg poll seems to be too big to be local and too irrelevant to be meaningful.

Candidates are being elected to a European parliament that many don't understand and few believe will actually make a difference.

The key issues on the doorsteps for people relate to things like water charges, emigration and employment. For the local elections, the win or lose issues actually do affect people's daily lives, whether it is illegal dumping or local amenities.

European candidates can say they have a view on all of the national issues, but even if elected, they are not really in a position to do anything meaningful about them.

The European elections will see 380 million people eligible to vote, making them the second biggest exercise in democracy in the world, after India. But it isn't at all clear how MEPs from one small country in the EU can make an impact on the big picture stuff.

For example, the turnout will be small. Across the EU as a whole, the turnout has been falling and last time out was just 43pc. Bear in mind that countries like Belgium and Luxembourg have compulsory voting.

The cost of the parliament has been rising during the recession years, further alienating voters who have struggled since 2009. It now costs €1.75bn to run the parliament, up about €350m since the recession started.

Bear in mind it sits in Strasbourg for a four-day session once a month. Committee meetings are held in Brussels and the 2,000 support staff are based in Luxembourg.

Quite uniquely to Europe, the number of anti-EU parliamentarians is also growing. It is expected to top 25pc after these elections.

European election campaigns in Ireland are increasingly taking on the character of opinion polls around government performance, combined with a degree of personal popularity.

Independents, even of the Eurosceptic variety can get elected if they have a good national profile. The electorate see this as an opportunity to avoid the main political parties while voting for someone they have heard of, and like.

Smaller parties, like Sinn Fein, can do very well even with candidates who have very little national profile. The election is an opportunity to kick the establishment parties, both in government and opposition, while safely voting for someone else.

I say safely, because a certain percentage of people who will vote Sinn Fein in the European elections, would not actually like to see the party in government in Ireland.

There is little point in candidates listing off their various policies in a European election, but the ritual is nevertheless observed. Policies discussed will relate to jobs, tax and charges, none of which can be fixed directly in Europe. Candidates will voice criticism of the handling of the euro crisis in Berlin, Frankfurt or Brussels. That is all very well, but is somewhat reminiscent of the 'Skibbereen Eagle'.

Yet, despite all of this dysfunction, the parliament does have power and does do important work. The problem is that few of us have a good understanding of exactly how that works. Furthermore, we have such a small say in this huge European edifice, that it all seems a bit irrelevant.

In Ireland, as with many other EU members, the perception is that the real business of Europe is done through the Council of Ministers, and through the bureaucracy in Brussels. Yet the parliament has consistently grown its formal powers in Europe and around 90pc of what the EU does requires the parliament's approval.

Up to the financial crisis of 2008, there was a view in Ireland that we did alright from the old structure. We were good at striking deals at the Council of Ministers or working the system in Brussels to punch above our weight.

However, post the banking crisis, people are a lot more sceptical. The new consensus emerging in Ireland is that Europe is really run by the bigger powers, and by Germany and France in particular.

In fact, that is why during this European election campaign we have heard so little about what policies various candidates stand for. The election is seen more as an opportunity to voice disapproval with either the government here or the system in Brussels.

That is all big-picture stuff. Yet Irish voters can benefit in lots of ways from the small detailed stuff that gets worked out in the halls of the European Commission in Brussels, or in the parliamentary committees. Details contained within various pieces of legislation or regulations can be negotiated in ways that have an impact in Ireland.

The corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg are full of lobbyists for business and commercial interests. Some of them are seeking decisions that could be beneficial to Ireland. Others are doing the opposite.

Having a group of smart and pragmatic MEPs in Strasbourg can further Irish interests in small but useful ways. Voters should treat the European elections as more than just a popularity or unpopularity contest.

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