Monday 21 October 2019

John Downing: 'Few people care much about European elections. But next May's vote is of vital importance for us all'

The reality is that few of us care too much about European Parliament elections, but the main parties must field strong candidates who can enthuse voters. Photo: AP
The reality is that few of us care too much about European Parliament elections, but the main parties must field strong candidates who can enthuse voters. Photo: AP
John Downing

John Downing

Yes, you will have read more arresting openers than the following. But stay with us - this one can only improve.

We are by now slightly "commemorated out" in our "decade of centenary" commemorations marking the events of 1912-1922. There was just a small public interest generated, beyond the history anoraks, by the centenary of the Dáil, and the first big action of the War of Independence with the killings at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary, which were remembered this past week.

So, forgive my resort to grandiloquence, and my crazy mix of metaphors, when I tell you about a "Soloheadbeg moment" in the upcoming European Parliament election campaign, which passed almost unnoticed last week. You are forgiven if you did not notice the first political shots being fired in a contest which will end on May 24, when voters choose their MEPs.

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Better news is to say it all happened in a magic part of the world, from deepest south Kerry into west Cork. It involved Seán Kelly of Fine Gael and Liadh Ní Riada of Sinn Féin. The pair have more in common than you would immediately think, as they come from areas barely 35km apart and each is happier to speak Irish than English in their daily lives.

Kelly, as a former GAA president, gave us the joy of rugby at Croke Park, even if it was marred by also giving admission to the soccer crowd, allowing them "dribble the ball along the ground apin' d'Inglish". But park that digression for now.

Kelly is one of the heavy-hitters in Brussels and for several years has had the tough and little-noticed task of piloting through a monster EU investment plan, which in the fullness of time may be of benefit to Irish business. It brings together a multitude of EU investment instruments, totalling up to €650bn.

About a fortnight ago, the plan sailed through the parliament with a huge 517 to 90 majority vote. Liadh Ní Riada, daughter of Irish music icon Seán Ó Riada, and her Sinn Féin colleagues were not impressed.

In a head-on attack, she argued that this was about business getting the benefits while taxpayers picked up the tab. She further argued that companies in the oil and other fossil-fuel businesses could also benefit at a time when those things were supposedly being phased out.

Kelly hit back, saying Sinn Féin was not supportive of business and also keeping rather bad political company. He said the French far-right Rassemblement National, previously Le Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, and the Brexit-backing Ukip were among the few naysayers.

It was a very revealing vignette for those of us who love our politics. We will hear much more of these things in the coming weeks and thus, I pray forgiveness for the strained Soloheadbeg comparison.

The reality is that few of us care too much about European Parliament elections. You may be surprised to hear that the upcoming contest is the ninth time we have been asked to directly elect our MEPs since the first time in 1979.

I had the pleasure of re-visiting Brussels, from where I reported for 10 years, this past week. It was a reality check.

Like most other EU capitals, Brexit and its many implications still looms large. But more than other capitals, a post-Brexit world is also visible on the horizon. Those who run the EU are planning for a future without the UK.

The other big thing that is happening is an imminent change of regime in both the policy-guiding Commission and the European Parliament, which is gaining all the time in its powers to shape and veto EU laws. The elections in May will see big changes in the 751-member chamber.

That in turn means a major shake-out in the senior staff at the parliament. At the same time, the 27 EU commissioners, including Ireland's nominee, Phil Hogan, will be appointed in the autumn.

All the signs are that Hogan will get the nod for another five years, which is a very good prospect. He has held a very influential post in charge of agriculture and 40pc of the €150bn EU annual budget, and is in line with a heavy-hitting job in the next Brussels executive.

But little more than half-a-dozen of the current Commission are expected to make a comeback. Of itself, that would increase Phil Hogan's chances of bagging a big job next time. But for the rest of the EU Commission inmates, it means huge change.

Hence, the bars and cafés around the Schuman these days are full of suited and booted men and women of ambition, speculating and throwing shapes. It is the way of the world: people with ambition, some of them with talent and even some with vision, are going to seek out advancement.

This holus-bolus changing of the Brussels guard has big implications for how Brexit is worked out. By now, few decisions - beyond the most urgent - are being taken in the EU capital. Among the fears about it all is the reality that by next summer, there may be few people left in Brussels to engage with London.

The European elections themselves are also impacted by the very likely extension of the March 29 Brexit deadline. It raises the strictly legal prospect of the need to hold European Parliament elections in the UK, despite that being a political nonsense since they are programmed to leave.

It's one of these "pick a lawyer" situations, as the experts argue on the one hand and on the other. The European Parliament's own lawyers have opined that elections can go ahead, with those in the UK being at least deferred.

Part of their opinion includes the prospect of holding elections without re-distributing the extra 27 seats from the UK's 73-seat allocation. The remaining 46 seats were to be put on ice awaiting any other new EU member states.

The Republic of Ireland was set to get two of these re-allocated seats, bringing our seat allocation in the EU chamber to 13 MEPs. It meant a possible extra seat in Dublin, going from three to four, and in the South, combining Munster and six south Leinster counties, the number would go from four to five.

It all opens up possibilities for Fianna Fáil, which has in reality had nobody at the European Parliament since 2014 due to a falling out with the talented Brian Crowley, who has sadly had to leave the field for health reasons. The reality has been that Fine Gael has maximised its position in the European Parliament over the past five-year term. I have mentioned the impact of Seán Kelly, but there have also been stellar performances by Mairead McGuinness and Brian Hayes, who has now decided to quit politics.

Fianna Fáil has to rethink its current inclination to ban sitting TDs to stand for Europe. They have a new home in the European liberal group to which leader Micheál Martin has made a strong contribution. Prospective candidates Billy Kelleher in the South, along with either John McGuinness or Barry Cowen, can win seats and could make an impact in the European Parliament.

The main parties must field strong candidates who can enthuse voters.

Irish Independent

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