Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 3 October 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Task Force Report on Subsidiarity, Proportionality and Doing Less More Efficiently: Discussion
I enjoyed both presentations. I never thought I would say that when it comes to an issue such as subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is a term that has plagued my fascination with the European institutions for the past 13 years. I have been to so many events where someone would get up and start talking about it and one would see the room collectively go to sleep. I accept it is a key tenet of what the European Union is about but it is something that is so poorly explained and means different things to so many different people. I would be quite happily to put both our guests on the road to go around and talk about it, if people are still willing to listen to the term.
There are a couple of issues they both brought up and I will merge them together rather than ask individual questions or make points. First, as a former member of the Committee of the Regions, I will defend it heartily. However, I fully take the point. Indeed, when I saw the picture of who was there, at least two of them lead my group in the Committee of the Regions and therefore I cannot be too mean, as I might need their votes in the congress in Helsinki soon. What I wanted to point out is it kind of sums up - I suppose it goes to the first presentation - the difficulty in defining European democracy. I mentioned outside to Professor Barrett that when I sat on the Committee of the Regions, I was there as a part-time county councillor from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown who flew over on Ryanair, to my right was the president of the Lombardy region with approximately 15 staff and to my left was the mayor of Salzburg. It shows the difference in what democracy means in each member state. We talk about the federal system in Germany and the importance of local and regional government. It is so much more important. Much of that plays into the history of the member states in question but also their electoral system. We are starting on the adventure of directly elected mayors - regrettably, not in Dublin just yet. How will that feed in?
It comes back, I suppose, to the electoral systems and how to explain the single transferable vote, PR-STV, system to every other member state bar Malta. It is different. Then we get into the political system as a whole. There is the presidential system in France as compared with the parliamentary system here. There is the question of how the Chancellor of Germany is actually elected and, of course, and crucially, as brought up by Dr. Emmanuelle Schön-Quinlivan, the fragility of the Spitzenkandidat system as a whole. I remember distinctly in the 2014 local elections Mr. Martin Schulz coming over here. There are no members from the Labour Party here at present but I give them credit for trying to drum up a bit of interest in it. Mr. Schulz managed to get two column inches. However, there is a certain special adviser to one of the Ministers who was on team Juncker, which was the campaign team, and he said going around Europe there was an absolute buy-in. As I mentioned Helsinki, we go to the EPP congress to choose the EPP Spitzenkandidat and yet there is already this background noise that it does not matter who is chosen and depending on where we are at, the European Council might just throw this away. Something that was raised in the second Lisbon referendum here was the importance of a directly elected European Commission president. Many on the Continent would argue that a Spitzenkandidat is a directly elected European Commission president. Try to say that to Irish people, who are currently going through the joys of a presidential election, and it is difficult to get that common idea of European democracy.
When one looks at the specifics of the recommendation, "Doing Less, More Efficiently" - indeed, there was mention of the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker's comment on it in the previous state of the Union address and one looks at the visionary versus practical - one must ask over the past 15 years how much of the work of the European Commission, and, indeed, the European project as a whole, has been visionary and how much of it has been reactionary. We go from the financial crisis into the migrant refugee crisis and the delights of Brexit. We are constantly reacting.
I must give credit to the French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron. I did not necessarily agree with the vast majority of his speech, but it was heartening to see him speak about a vision for Europe for nearly two hours last year. That is something that has not happened, arguably since Delors. How do we take that argument over? It is important that my colleague mentioned the rise of populism and nascent nationalism across the continent. It is a question of how one counters that. Certain politicians are better at doing that than others. Then one has the guise of other politicians who ten years ago were the most enthusiastic of pro-Europeans and were talking about how European integration would solve all the ills of their country in the post-communist era, and now they are blatantly and flagrantly in breach of European law, in my opinion.
How do we start the development of the European project? In Rome last year there was a number of very interesting speeches and proposals about the next 60 years. We all remember what started it all, namely, the European Coal and Steel Community, but the vast majority of my friends and colleagues do not remember. Did the European Coal and Steel Community really envisage subsidiarity becoming the key issue? Did it think of a future Europe in which there were five options? I suppose it is always going to be reactionary and needs to be as the world changes, but there is a case for putting out a core development, and that must be pulled back from the specific policies that so many of the local and regional representatives fed into it. One could ask how far we can reach. The migrant crisis will end at some stage, or at least the refugee crisis in Syria will end at some stage, but it might not be today or tomorrow or even for a decade.
Professor Barrett focused on having more time and information for domestic European affairs committees. Again harking back to the Committee of the Regions, the scope for interparliamentary engagement on a European level is not what it should be. I do not think domestic parliamentarians take the level of interest in European affairs they merit, based on the significant opportunities the Commission has for initiating legislation, looking at the COREPER process and how elected representatives can feed into it and not just the permanent government. Something is lacking in the sense that we go to the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for European Affairs, COSAC, once every six months if we are lucky. Only three to five people go on a delegation. I have not been at the last two because they did not suit. There need to be opportunities not just to attend interesting seminars on key topics but one must also get used to meeting people. Meeting members of the European affairs committee in Poland or Estonia once every six months is not enough. In the austerity era people would baulk at the idea of anyone travelling. I challenge anyone to say how spending three nights in Brussels in the Radisson RED hotel is somehow a jolly. It is not. There is hard work to be done there and long hours are required. We need to be prepared to defend that.
One of the very interesting things about the ongoing malaise that is Brexit is that we are seeing the positive result of taking the show on the road. One cannot conduct inter-European relations from one's home capital. The fact that the Government has had more than 2,000 meetings with its peers in other member states and the European institutions is quite obvious. It is shown in the level of solidarity that we have got. If we are truly going to buy into 60 more years of the European project, we need to be prepared and not just to go to Brussels or Strasbourg. One of the most interesting things I found out was not at a plenary in Brussels but at a civics meeting in Brindisi. It was about Calais. We are talking about migration, which was the dominant issue because it was local authorities that were literally picking people up off the beaches or who were managing "The Jungle" camp in Calais. The situation is completely alien to us sitting on this very windy, wet rock. I wish the best of luck to anyone to tries to swim to Ireland or a take a boat from Libya. It is just not possible. This level of discourse needs to happen.
Possibly for us as politicians the difficulty is taking all the excellent contributions the witnesses have made and the report of the task force, which is a good one, and making it more relevant to the people. That is our job. We are the conduit between the population at large and the institutions of Government. It is not a very easy thing to do. One of the things mentioned by Dr. Schön-Quinlivan is that the Commission always talks about communication being key. I do not necessarily think the Commission needs to communicate more, I think it needs to be less balanced. I think it needs to sell Europe a bit more. The Commission spent 20 years paying Nigel Farage to tell everyone how bad it is, to blatantly lie about the role of the European Commission when it comes to straight or bendy bananas or air pillows in cereals when he was talking about something else. It was good to hear the comments by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, following the collapse of the bridge in Italy. The collapse of the bridge was horrible and I am very sympathetic to those affected but it is about time Europe stood up for itself, and it is about time domestic politicians and Heads of Government stood up for Europe as well. It is very easy to blame Brussels or other state actors and that is what gifts the rise of far-right populism on the Continent and far-left populism in this country because it gives them an opportunity.
On a completely separate note, I pay credit to Tony Dodd, who moved on from this committee. He is enjoying his first meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport. He was an excellent help to me and all other members and I would just like to put it on the record. I again thank the witnesses for their contributions.