Friday 24 May 2019

John Downing: 'European vote is critically important for us - so key players need to inject some badly needed fizz to debate'

It would be beneficial for Ireland to have a presence in as many key groups – EPP, Social Democrat, Liberal and Green – as is feasible. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA
It would be beneficial for Ireland to have a presence in as many key groups – EPP, Social Democrat, Liberal and Green – as is feasible. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA
John Downing

John Downing

It is happening in just 11 days' time and it is the most important European Parliament election in the history of Ireland's EU membership.

The terms of the UK-EU divorce deal have yet to get the necessary ratification in the London parliament. But if and when that happens, then the real negotiations will begin on a future EU-UK relationship on trade and other issues which will be of crucial interest to everyone on this island. We need people of political skill and a huge work-rate to represent us at every level in Brussels.

We also need a much stronger debate in this parliamentary election. As the final week beckons, the party leaders and the key party figures must mobilise to give a lacklustre campaign thus far a badly needed boost.

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This is the seventh time we have been called to the polls to elect our Euro parliamentarians. When it first happened in 1979, the parliament was an after-thought in the decision-making system.

But it has been gradually gathering power and influence to shape and veto EU initiatives over the ensuing four decades, with landmark gains in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the 1998 Amsterdam Treaty, the 2002 Nice Treaty, and the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

As former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy summed up, almost no legislation can be adopted without MEPs' assent, no budget or financial framework can be put in place, no international deal signed, or no key appointment made - including that of the powerful EU Commission.

Taken together, that is some block of powers for the 751 MEPs.

In the past two decades, Ireland has sent some top-notch political performers to Brussels who won respect and gained influence. They belied claims that, being few, their voices would be drowned out.

Pat Cox was a one-man band as an independent member of the Liberal grouping. But he rose to be president of the parliament in the years 2002-2004. Similarly, another independent, Marian Harkin, who is not contesting this election after 15 years' service, won great respect for her work on things which could bring her no immediate political return.

It has to be said that three of the Fine Gael MEPs packed a huge punch over the past five years in Brussels, exerting huge influence over European People's Party colleagues Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, who were crucial players in Brexit. The work and reputation of Brian Hayes, who is not seeking re-election in Dublin, Seán Kelly, who is going again in South, and Mairead McGuinness, who is contesting Midlands-North-West, was very helpful to Ireland.

We who like our politics are sometimes fixated by Brexit. Visitors to this country are often astonished at how much notice Irish people away from the political bubble give to it.

But Brexit barely features as an electoral issue in the rest of the EU. As with Ireland, in this campaign across the EU a mix of domestic political issues and personal perceptions of the EU's value are at play.

Yet Brexit has had an indirect influence. By now, almost all European mainstream parties have become more avowedly pro-EU. The public mood has also changed somewhat, with high approval ratings for the EU in most member states, though Ireland is solidly in the lead with nine out of 10 people wanting us to stay in.

While there is a rise of anti-EU sentiment, few of the nationalist parties who were calling for exit referendums after the Brexit result in June 2016 are still doing so. The mainstream demand now is for the EU to be refashioned to give national governments the primary say. This rise of Euroscepticism will, however, change the dynamic of the European Parliament.

The traditionally dominant centre-right EPP grouping, to which Fine Gael is allied, and the centre-left Socialist and Democrats, which includes Labour, are forecast to lose big numbers of seats.

These two blocs have combined for 40 years to run the parliament. Against that the Liberal group, known by its initials ALDE, and Greens are expected to emerge stronger. An overall working majority will be harder to forge and make work.

But the culture of the European Parliament is far more based on cross-party co-operation than national parliaments, which have been closer to winner-takes-all. Some kind of four-party collaboration is likely to emerge.

So, in an ideal world, it would be beneficial for Ireland to have a presence in as many of these groups - EPP, Social Democrat, Liberal and Green - as is feasible.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has worked hard at cultivating links with the Liberal grouping, attending all recent leaders' summits, and we can expect some Fianna Fáil MEPs to be returned.

Yes, right-wing European populists such as Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France will also pack a punch in the new parliament, which will open for business on July 2. These and others will make a "European Alliance of People and Nations" all the stronger. But their presence could push for overdue EU reforms.

All of this comes at a time of huge challenges, which put Brexit down a few notches in the priority stakes. There is climate change, migration pressures, threatened trade wars, eurozone reform, and regional security. There are also continuing tensions about defiance of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland.

We must remember also that the new European Parliament must itself ratify the Brexit withdrawal agreement, again assuming it is ever cleared by Westminster. That 40-year-old stable majority of MEPs was generally on song with the European Commission's Brexit approach.

But if this is disrupted by a larger than expected contingent of populist, EU-sceptical MEPs, there could be further complications. The new parliament will also have a considerable say in the make-up of the new Commission, which will eventually negotiate the EU's future relationship with the UK.

And as we have noted at the outset, the MEPs must also agree the future post-Brexit EU-UK relationship itself. For all these reasons, Ireland needs the strongest possible team in Brussels and Strasbourg for the forthcoming five-year term.

By now the fate of two extra MEPs to be elected, one each in Dublin and South, is known to be uncertain. It was never envisaged that the UK would still be in the EU at this stage so the two extra seats given to the Republic of Ireland from the UK allocation remain in doubt.

Speculation now is that UK MEPs, including three from Northern Ireland, will be giving up their seats when Brexit finally happens. In the interim, British MEPs could affect the new parliament.

They could well play a role in selecting the new commission, to be in place long after the UK has left.

They also have a role in 'housekeeping', such as group formations and committee selections. The strange world that is Brexit continues.

Irish Independent

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