Wednesday 11 December 2019

How the MEP 'Class of 2014' will shake things up in Europe

UKIP leader Nigel Farage speaks during a meeting of leaders of European Parliament political groups in Brussels yesterday. Reuters
UKIP leader Nigel Farage speaks during a meeting of leaders of European Parliament political groups in Brussels yesterday. Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

LUKE 'Ming' Flanagan will not lack for like-minded company on his trips to Brussels and Strasbourg over the next five years.

It is clear that up to one-third of the European Parliament 'Class of 2014' are keen to at least cut back the EU's powers. Some MEPs among that group would like to see it reduced to a loose confederation of trading nations.

Ireland will not have hard-right or extreme-left representatives among its 11 new MEPs. In fact, by comparison with representatives of the other 27 nations, the Irish 14 from both sides of the Border will seem a pretty orthodox bunch for the most part.

But the new general configuration of the European Parliament could have big implications for Ireland over the coming term. And the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in these elections also keeps up pressure for a referendum on EU membership, the outcome of which could have profound implications for this country.

EU leaders, including the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, meeting informally in Brussels last night were surveying a much-changed political landscape driven by a tide of euroscepticism and anxiety about immigration. Apathy proved as big an enemy as antipathy, with an EU-wide average turnout of 43pc and lows of as little as 13pc in Slovakia, all of which showed Ireland's half of the electorate turnout in a more benign light.

A flavour of these EU-wide changes reads as follows. In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front stormed to victory with 25pc of the vote and taking 24 seats. Former President Nicholas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP is on 21pc and President Hollande's Socialists came a poor third with 14pc.

In Britain, the Eurosceptic UKIP is in first place with 27pc – including a breakthrough win of a seat in Scotland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel won another election with 35pc for her Christian Union. But the newcomer Eurosceptic AfD party scored strongly on 7pc.

In Greece, the far-left Syriza is on 26pc, while the extreme-right Golden Dawn elected three MEPs with 9pc of the vote.

EU diplomats assessing the new continent-wide scene yesterday conceded that the Eurosceptic groupings could have a big impact. The European Parliament has been incrementally gathering power in the EU's complex decision-making structure ever since the 1992 EU Maastricht Treaty and more notably since the 2009 EU Lisbon Treaty.

The Parliament now has direct powers in the area, like data protection, international trade arrangements such as the EU-US deal, and other transnational policy areas like climate change. It also has great potential for shaping cross-border debate as it is a parliament of 751 MEPs drawn from 28 countries representing 500 million people. It is true that the MEPs cannot initiate new EU legislation. But skilled MEPs can get through significant amendments that can have real effect. Not for nothing does an army of lobbyists representing interests from every walk of life descend on the parliament buildings each working day.

There are, of course, some key reasons why the influx of eurosceptics will be at very least slow to be felt. The European Parliament still cannot initiate new laws and the main force of EU power rests with member governments through the Council of Ministers and EU leaders' summits.

These new sceptics are from very diverse groups and from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds who will have practical and ideological difficulties agreeing effective co-ordinated action.

But sporadic rallying calls to block initiatives by the established parties could throw a right spanner in the works more often than old-school Eurocrats would like to see.

Equally, the effect of such political discord can be felt in other ways through the pressure they can bring to bear on national governments.

One Brussels diplomat explained this yesterday. "UKIP, for example, do not have a single member of the House of Commons. But they have managed to put the Conservatives under intense pressure even ahead of this week's election successes. That has been felt right up to the EU leaders' summit meetings on many occasions and we will see more of this, not just from the UK," the official told the Irish Independent.

From next week on, the Irish MEPs will begin arriving in Brussels for orientation and information meetings. Then the groups will begin their various machinations in efforts to carve up committee chairs and other influential posts.

In the first days of July, the formal opening of the 2014-2019 European Parliament happens. There is a sense that things will be very different.

Irish Independent

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