Malcolm Byrne: 'Amid challenging times, European elections deserve more of our attention'
While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael negotiators continue to review the Confidence and Supply Agreement, speculation is ongoing as to whether or not we will have a general election next year. Meanwhile, all the political parties are starting to line up their council candidates for local elections in May. But the other ballot paper on that day concerns the European Parliament polls which could arguably be more important than either local or general elections.
As a result of Brexit and no future British representation, Ireland will now have two additional seats in the next European Parliament, growing from 11 to 13 members.
The overall composition of the parliament is going to be hugely different. While one can never accurately predict election results, going on trends across Europe, the two traditional major blocs - the Christian Democrat European People's Party (EPP - of which Fine Gael is a member) and the Socialists and Democrats (of which Labour is a member) - are likely to lose support and seats. Indeed, it is probable that for the first time, the combination of these two groups will not have a majority of the seats and that traditional power-lock will be broken.
The beneficiaries are likely to be the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE - Fianna Fáil's European party) and the Greens, in the political centre, but also the eurosceptical groups on the far right and the far left.
On the right, the alliances being forged by Marine Le Pen, of France's National Rally, and Matteo Salvini's Italian Lega, alongside the growth of populist parties such as the Sweden Democrats, Fidesz in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, will represent a significant challenge to the liberal democratic values that underpin the European Union. The combination of these parties will likely have more seats and thus more influence.
In the centre, the decision this month by French President Emmanuel Macron to ally any French MEPs elected under his banner with the ALDE group is hugely significant. It is now possible that this group may be larger than the Socialists after next May (especially as the Socialists can no longer count on British Labour members). This will mean new forms of coalition-building will be needed in the next parliament to get legislation through and passionate debates are likely about the values that underpin the European Union.
This will be at precisely a time when the parliament will have a key role on huge issues that will have a direct impact on European citizens. The effects of whatever Brexit emerges on Ireland and other EU members will certainly be to the fore over the five-year life of the parliament. But so too will the nuclear issue of our age - climate change. In addition, the continuing migrant crisis; cybersecurity and cybercrime; terrorism; the relationship of Europe with Russia; positive and negative developments in technology (from regulating blockchain to dealing with fake news); food security; dealing with racism - all these matters that need a European response will be on the agenda of the European institutions.
Our representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg over the five-year period 2019-2024 (and surely, during that period, the travelling circus of a parliament in two cities will be addressed) will be members of a much more diverse and disparate institution. At the same time, they will have to deal with the greatest set of challenges yet faced by Ireland and by the European Union. Perhaps it is time to focus more of our attention on this 'second-tier' election?
Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil councillor from Gorey, Co Wexford.