Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Accountability in the EU: Discussion with Minister of State

2:05 pm

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the committee I welcome the Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton. She has been a regular contributor to the committee since her elevation to a ministerial position and she was previously a member of the committee. Members are aware that this is Europe week and the event is being celebrated by a number of debates in both Houses and the committees. It is appropriate that the Minister of State is with us today to broaden the discussion.

As part of its work stream on Ireland and the future of the EU, this committee has been examining issues related to the completion of the economic and monetary union, such as banking, fiscal and economic union. The issues of democratic legitimacy and accountability have been identified at EU level as the fourth critical component of a complete economic and monetary union, and as a committee we have decided to give special consideration to these issues. The issues of democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU extend beyond the area of economic governance, and in an Irish context they raise questions on the role of the Oireachtas in EU affairs. I know the Minister of State chaired a sub-committee which considered the issue in 2010.

With European elections coming in 2014 and the changes proposed, we have the opportunity to consider how to address these key questions. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's views in that respect.

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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It is nice to see the Acting Chairman in his role today and I am delighted to have an opportunity to address the committee, as it has been a while since I have had the chance to do it. I am very pleased to be here today.

It is 63 years since Robert Schuman presented a proposal for the creation of a community of European nation states, a community which would be bound together by shared values and concerns while accepting and embracing diversity. This proposal, made on 9 May 1950, would lay the foundations for lasting peace and prosperity in Europe and would give all Europeans the democratic tools to ensure governments worked together in their interests. Such is the importance of the Schuman declaration and the European project that 9 May has been designation as Europe Day to acknowledge the peace and unity which has been accomplished but also to acknowledge that there is more to do. It is for this very reason that this Government committed to a week-long parliamentary debate on Europe and Ireland's priorities within the EU and why I very much welcome the opportunity to speak to this committee in Europe week on the question of democratic accountability and legitimacy in the European Union. We will have a plenary debate tomorrow in the Dáil Chamber on the same topic.

The economic and financial crisis has contributed to a wider crisis in confidence in the institutions that have been so painstakingly built in Europe over the past 50 years and of which Ireland has been an integral part for the past four decades. We need to confront this crisis of confidence with a sense of urgency and determination, along with a clear understanding of what is at stake. The immediate context of this discussion is the new framework of economic governance that has been developed in response to the crisis and to protect our common currency.

The European semester - the EU's new system of economic and budgetary co-ordination - is already in its third year. Under the Irish Presidency agreement has most recently been reached on the so-called two pack of measures to strengthen budgetary co-ordination and surveillance in the euro area.

These measures do raise questions regarding the accountability of the new system and national parliaments ought to consider how these measures can be brought within their existing budgetary functions. That was clearly recognised by Herman Van Rompuy in his report on economic and monetary union published last December when he pointed out that "budgetary decisions are at the heart of member states' parliamentary democracies". The European Council has repeatedly underlined the need to address the issue, most recently in March when it stressed that: "Any new steps towards strengthening economic governance will need to be accompanied by further steps towards stronger legitimacy and accountability." I, like many of my colleagues throughout Europe, fundamentally believe that we must have an open and frank discussion on the issue. That is why I devoted the informal meeting of European affairs Ministers I hosted in January in Dublin to a consideration of the topic.

I was pleased that we were also joined by representatives of the European Parliament and of the Oireachtas, including the committee Chairman, Deputy Hannigan. I asked Professor Brigid Laffan to prepare a paper to guide our discussion. The paper set out many of the key questions which we need to address. I recommend it to members if they have not seen it already. It is still available on the Irish Presidency website. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which my colleagues discussed the topic. There was a clear consensus on the need to address any democratic deficit with distinct roles envisaged for national parliaments and the European Parliament. It was also clear that they had very little desire for further institutional or treaty change but could see steps that could be taken within the existing framework. We should not fear treaty change if it is necessary but we must first establish what we want to achieve and the steps that need to be taken and then establish the legal consequences of that, rather than ruling anything out at the outset. Many colleagues felt that simple improvements in terms of information such as informing and consulting national parliaments about developments at European level would yield quick results, as would new forms of co-operation between national parliaments and the European Parliament.

I also very much welcome the work that is being done by this committee and, in particular, by the Chairman. He and a group of his European colleagues have been actively engaged in considering ways to improve co-ordination between national parliaments, strengthening dialogue with the Commission and the other institutions and developing a system for consulting national parliaments on the semester process. The democratic legitimacy of the semester process was also considered last month by the speakers of EU parliaments who were meeting in Nicosia. They looked specifically at the provision contained in the stability treaty for a conference of representatives of the European Parliament and of national parliaments to discuss budgetary policy. Stressing the necessity for democratic legitimacy and accountability in the economic governance of the EU, they proposed the establishment of an interparliamentary conference with representatives from national parliaments and from the European Parliament. The conference would meet twice yearly, once in Brussels and once in the member state holding the Presidency. The conference would meet for the first time under the Lithuanian Presidency and then at the beginning of 2014 at the European Parliament.

The conclusion I draw from the various strands of activity, whether at governmental or parliamentary level, is that there is a very clear sense of the need to strengthen democratic accountability and legitimacy across the board. That is even more pronounced as we take further steps towards closer economic and monetary integration, with the greater sharing of sovereignty which that, by necessity, implies. There is widespread political will to address this and the various contributions that have been made from all parties have been offered in a constructive and open spirit. I hope that will continue. However, it would be naive to deny that we face a deeper and more intractable problem of democratic accountability and legitimacy. Many people in Europe today do not feel that the European institutions are accountable. They are sometimes perceived to be remote, opaque and out of touch with everyday concerns. That is not necessarily unique in that the same view is often expressed about national parliaments. Nonetheless, it is important that we take it on board and try to tackle it. There is a low level of public understanding of precisely how Europe works and the complexities of the decision-making process. There is much work to be done in that regard.

Many members will have seen a recent Eurobarometer survey carried out in the six largest member states which suggests a widespread collapse in trust among citizens in the European Union. That is most worrying. In part, it reflects the unpopularity of the measures which had to be taken to address the crisis and the weaknesses in economic governance in Europe that were, in part, to blame for the crisis in the first place. The weaknesses have been exposed and people have felt the consequences of them at first hand. No doubt, as we emerge from the crisis and economic conditions in Europe improve, so too will the reputation of the European institutions. It is quite logical. However, I still believe we cannot be complacent and we must confront head-on the type of ill-informed euroscepticism that is all too evident today.

We must make the case for Europe and remind people of how the European Union has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the Continent. Education has an important role to play. Educating people about how Europe works is important. For that reason I started the Blue Star programme in primary schools when I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs in 2011. The purpose of the programme is to encourage awareness among a new generation of the benefits that EU membership brings us and to help pupils to learn more about the institutions, history and culture of Europe and to be more engaged, thoughtful and critical, if need be, of the process, but to meaningfully engage young people from a young age. The response by pupils, teachers and parents has been positive. The programme was piloted last year in 40 schools and we have approximately 100 schools this year. The programme is growing all the time, as is the level of interest among schools.

I very much welcome the decision by the Oireachtas to publish an annual scrutiny work programme. As elected representatives we have a responsibility to monitor decisions taken at EU level. For that reason the Government supported the introduction of the new arrangements that now exist in the Oireachtas for the scrutiny of EU business. I speak from experience as I was a member of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny in the previous Oireachtas term. A number of members were also on the committee at the time. The horizontal and expert approach through sectoral committees is a much more effective way to deal with the scrutiny of legislation. However, there is still a long way to go. These things take time to bed down and for members to become familiar with them and delve into them but that is beginning to happen.

We also have the opportunity this year, the European Year of Citizens, to recall and celebrate the rights we all enjoy as EU citizens – rights which, sadly, all too often we take for granted. I refer to the right to live and work in other member states, the range of social and economic rights the EU has developed or the right to vote in European elections, which is a hugely important aspect. As the Chairman indicated, next year we will have European elections and this will be a litmus test for the legitimacy of the European Parliament, which now has vastly enhanced powers under the Lisbon treaty.

It will be interesting to assess whether that actually translates in terms of turnout and voter participation. As I said, with the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament enjoys substantially increased powers and has equal legislative powers with the European Council on most matters. I always say that Ministers consider themselves to be hugely important when it comes to decision making at European level but MEPs are just as important these days. It really is a great platform for a genuine debate in the run-up to the European elections and the engagement of the political parties in that process is hugely important. It will be interesting to monitor and is something we can discuss in more detail in our exchange later.

I am very much of the opinion that if the European Union can deliver on policies that will improve the lot of European citizens then public confidence and trust in the European institutions can be rebuilt and improved dramatically. That informs part of what we are doing during our European Council Presidency term. We are working extremely hard to focus our Presidency on achievable, realistic policy goals which are firmly focused on delivering on our task of creating stability, jobs and growth. That is the theme of our Presidency and we chose that theme in an effort to re-instill confidence in the voting public and to demonstrate to them that the European Union can work for them and in their interests. We have prioritised those areas we believe will provide the best sources of employment. We are focusing on the single market, external trade and so on. It is all about creating and developing opportunities for businesses to grow, expand and create employment. It is an obvious but hugely important task for the Irish Presidency.

We are also working hard to agree on the budgetary framework for the European Union. Members will be aware that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were in Brussels yesterday meeting President Schulz and President Barroso. The Tánaiste and I have been working intensively with the European Parliament for the last number of months to try to break the deadlock on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which is an absolutely essential goal of the Irish Presidency. If we can deliver on the MFF we can then move forward on policies that really matter to people and which have the capacity to improve the lot of European citizens, whether it is through the Cohesion Fund, the Structural Fund, the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, the fisheries policy, Horizon 2020 and so on. That is absolutely vital and we hope that we will continue to have the support of the European Parliament to achieve that goal by the end of our Presidency.

At this very critical time in the development of the European Union and the European project, which is also the 40th anniversary of Ireland's relationship with the EU, Europe has to be seen to be delivering solutions for citizens and member states rather than being perceived as being part of the problem. That is the big challenge that faces all of us as legislators, both in the national Parliament and on the European stage. I hope that we can have a positive exchange here today whereby committee members share their views with me because it is a two-way process. I am interested in hearing from all political parties and those of all political persuasions because this is a common goal and one that is absolutely vital to the future of our country and our citizens. I look forward to answering any questions members may have.

2:15 pm

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her statement. I hope to conclude the meeting by 3 p.m. so I ask members to be brief with their comments and questions.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to this meeting. I understand that we are attempting to create a dialogue between parliamentarians and the EU and that there is a deficit in that regard. There is certainly a deficit in the sense that we have MEPs elected to represent Ireland who seem to be aloof from this engagement process.

I am very worried about what seems to be happening in Europe. Some of my concerns include the fact that Bulgaria has no government at present and Italy is in an extremely unstable position politically, with the likelihood that its Government will collapse, with further disharmony ensuing. There are also rumours that Slovenia is having extreme financial difficulties and will head down the thorny bailout path, that Spain is in crisis and that the French banking system is unstable. There are four countries already in bailout programmes, namely Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Greece. At the same time, the British Prime Minister is gaining support for his proposal to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. In Ireland we are blessed by the fact that we have a written Constitution and have to put proposals for major change to the people by way of referenda. That, in a sense, tends to make us focus quite sharply on issues emanating from Europe, which is positive. However, I detect a very strong sense of alienation among the citizens of Europe. The fact that people feel that they can vote for comedians over serious politicians is very worrying. To some extent, we can be encouraged by the fact that countries such as Iceland, Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia, Turkey and the Ukraine want to join the European Union. Where does the Minister of State see things going in 2014?

A witness who appeared before an Oireachtas committee recently suggested that the political structure in Ireland is not capable of delivering the degree of professionalism required to properly scrutinise EU business. He said that the client basis of electoral support here, the multi-seat constituency system and the single transferable vote created so much internal competition that parliamentarians would not have the time or inclination to engage in the serious business of really delving into such scrutiny.

What is happening now could be called the politics of the pendulum. All over Europe, socialists get elected and then they get kicked out, to be replaced by conservatives who then get kicked out and so forth. Iceland is a great example of this. The pendulum is in constant motion. The people are so desperate for some sort of long-term stability and security. They are in such pain that they opt to get rid of their current leaders in favour of the opposition, in the hope that their situation will improve. In reality, their situation is deteriorating.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I think the Deputy has clearly identified some of the weaknesses in democracy.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I attended the launch of the European Movement's Accountability Report for 2012 this morning which shows that the average Irish ministerial attendance at meetings for 2012 increased by 11%. In fact, we are now at 97%, coming in joint second, which is very welcome and demonstrates the commitment of the Minister of State and the Government. Irish attendance in Europe is extremely important because there is so much change happening at European level, affecting all of us.

As someone who has served in the European Parliament, I am very interested in the question of the scrutiny of EU legislation. I note from the report launched this morning that Ireland now has 12 MEPs but is only represented on 14 of the 20 committees of the European Parliament. It is quite likely that we will lose an MEP at the next European elections, which means that our MEPs will be sitting on even fewer committees. That means that we must be more watchful of what is going on in the European Parliament and across all of the EU institutions.

It means we need to be more watchful with regard to developments in the European Parliament and other EU institutions.

On the issue of Oireachtas involvement in European Union affairs, I am not convinced that scrutiny of EU legislation by committees is working. The best example is the role of the Joint Committee on Health and Children in scrutinising an EU directive on medical devices. When it was recommended that members rubber-stamp the directive I asked what consultation the joint committee had undertaken with medical device companies. It transpired that the committee had not engaged in any such consultation and it emerged in subsequent correspondence with the relevant companies that they were not satisfied with the proposals in the directive. This is clear evidence of the problem we have with EU scrutiny.

This issue is connected to the referendum on the future of the Seanad. The Seanad should have a role in scrutinising European Union legislation. Given that the Dáil is processing a significant volume of legislation, the Upper House could usefully assist in scrutinising EU legislation. We should consider options other than the abolition of the Seanad. Scrutiny of EU legislation could be a major element in the reform of the House.

Discussions in the House help inform people. The cross-border health care directive of February 2011 has not yet been transposed into Irish legislation. Given that national authorities have 30 months to transpose EU legislation into law, we have approximately three months to transpose the directive. Many people, including Members, are not familiar with the directive. This is another example of legislation that affects all of our lives. This is one way to further improve scrutiny of European affairs, even within the existing structures. Scrutiny should also be done before the eight week window commences.

2:25 pm

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to this meeting for an opportune discussion. I had the pleasure of accompanying her on a visit to one of the schools in the Blue Star programme. It is remarkable how open and engaged young people are with the European project. They are a reminder to everyone involved in politics that we all have a role to play in promoting Europe. The European Union is of great importance to our culture and the future of our youngest citizens. This is a long overdue debate.

I ask the Minister of State to tease out the issues she addressed and perhaps stray into her personal opinion. In Bucharest, where she was recently elected one of the vice-presidents of the European People's Party, a motion was passed calling for a directly-elected president of Europe. The Minister of State indicated that co-operation between all the political blocs is good. Is this view shared with the other political groupings? Is there discussion of how such a directly-elected role would play out with European Commissioners? Would they be directly elected or appointed? Would countries such as Ireland be at risk of losing a Commissioner?

The issue of eurocrats and technocrats generates considerable negative publicity. In the aftermath of recent economic reforms, most people accept there is a democratic deficit in Europe. How does the Minister of State expect the institutions to develop? Will a Commissioner become a Minister and so forth?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I will make a few comments before asking the Minister of State to conclude. The notion that there is a democratic deficit is overstated as the enhanced role of the European Parliament has created a more direct connection to citizens. This is evident in today's visit to Brussels by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to discuss and negotiate the multi-annual financial framework with the European Parliament. To echo the point raised by Deputy Dara Murphy, there is a concern that smaller states such as Ireland would lose out if citizens participated in direct elections of all office holders. A fine balance must be struck when trying to re-engineer or reconfigure current structures. I have no doubt the Minister of State has a keen interest in this issue.

The Minister of State referred to the issue of scrutiny. A number of members of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny believed the approach taken was not the best way to scrutinise EU legislation. It is appropriate, therefore, that scrutiny is being done by sectoral committees. I am not certain, however, that Irish parliamentarians are sufficiently well equipped to perform this task. This deficiency could be addressed in a number of ways. We could change the electoral system or equip and resource politicians to manage the problem. However, I am not sure the Oireachtas undertakes sufficient scrutiny of domestic legislation, not to speak of European legislation. This is as true of the Government side as it is of the Opposition side because far too much of our work is based on clientelism and the process of being re-elected. We must implement internal reforms before we start demanding more in the European context. This is an ongoing debate which I am sure will continue not only in this committee but elsewhere.

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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I thank members for their thought-provoking contributions. While I cannot begin to try to predict the future of Bulgaria, Italy, Slovenia, Spain or France, what is clear is that it would be inaccurate to suggest the crisis is behind us. A great deal of work still needs to be done at European Union level. If I had my way, the first step taken at EU level would be to implement the commitment made nearly a year ago to break the link between sovereign debt and bank debt. Until we do this, the precariousness that exists in certain member states, which places the entire eurozone in a precarious position, will continue. We must break the link between sovereign and bank debt.

Ireland occupies a position on the high moral ground, as it were, because we have implemented the requirements of the troika programme admirably and taken all the pain asked of us, although I do not doubt the steps we took were necessary. We recapitalised and stabilised our banks, for example, and are in a strong position to advocate for developments at eurozone and EU level which other countries, owing to their economic difficulties, may not believe they can do persuasively or with authority. Ireland must take a lead on this issue. This is what we are trying to do but to fully realise this objective Europe must put in place all the elements of banking union. The Irish Presidency has been taking a lead in this matter and has made considerable progress to date. We secured an agreement to establish a single supervisory mechanism, for example, although it would be wrong to believe this new arrangement will provide a solution to the crisis. The new mechanism is only a start as we must also put in place a resolution mechanism and Europe-wide guarantee scheme. We are on the right path and the process is being driven by the Irish Presidency. I hope we will continue to lead and drive this agenda beyond the Presidency because there is no substitute to the current approach, even if it will be politically difficult for many countries to pursue it.

It will be challenging to bring the variant and divergent public opinion in Europe from the creditor countries to the so-called debtor countries. We have to meet in the middle and find a way forward together. Pursuing the path of banking union, separating the link between bank debt and sovereign debt, is fundamental to that.

There was a question about the UK. Obviously today is significant because of the intervention of the former Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, with whom I can only say I disagree. I do not believe a cogent case can be argued for a UK exit. Although it is not for us to intervene or interfere in the domestic matters of the UK, any more than it was appropriate for members of UKIP to come and campaign here during our referenda, it is important that we do what we can as a friend and neighbour to keep the UK on the European path. It is in our interest to do so but, just as important, it is in the interest of the UK to do so. That is my firm conviction.

I refer to the question on scrutiny. The Deputy has raised a very interesting point about our political system, which was also alluded to by the Acting Chairman, Deputy Dooley. I believe absolutely that our public representatives are as capable as any public representatives the world over. I will always defend anybody who can get elected in our cut-throat electoral environment; who has something significant to offer to national politics. Sometimes I hear condescension on the airwaves in this country, almost a denigration of political figures simply because they are elected, something I refute completely. I entirely agree about the structure, however. The Deputy knows this as well as I do - we served on Dublin City Council together. Most of the elected representatives present - probably everybody around this table - have served as a town, county or city councillor, which shows the natural progression. Our electoral system certainly needs to be radically overhauled and changed. That would serve the national level of politics much better and extremely well. It would be much easier for Deputies and Senators to invest their time in legislating, which is what we are elected to do. However, it is difficult for Deputies to dedicate as much time as they should to legislating because of the demands of our electoral system. It is a catch-22 situation, and a real pity. Any Member of either House is well capable of doing the job of scrutinising but because of the constraints of the electoral system they are probably not able to do this as well as they should and I include myself in that. All of us are constrained by the nature of our system.

"Politics of the pendulum" is an accurate metaphor. One hears cries of victory from both the left and the right when elections take place. The reality, of course, is that one administration is replaced by another. At present, there is a pendulum at work across the Continent of Europe, because of the failure of domestic politics and, to some extent, of EU politics. We must be cognisant of that and must try to challenge it. We must find ways to deliver on the really crucial political agenda of the day, namely, job creation. There are 26 million people unemployed and youth unemployment is hitting more than 50% in a number of member states. This is not acceptable. As legislators and policy makers, we have to change that. It is not easy. I dispute the simplified solutions that are put forward by many people from many quarters who pretend there is an easy way. There is no such way but that is not to say we should give up. We have to fight for the politics concerned which is, effectively, the politics of the centre, whether centre-left or centre-right. It is about building consensus and finding solutions that can bring the majority of the people with us. We have to fight for that because if we cede that ground we are giving up to the politics of extremes, whether these are on the left or the right. That is very dangerous and is not in our interest. In countries that have no government or have interim or unstable governments the reason is that the politics of the centre has not been able to deliver. We must work with our colleagues from all member states and of all political hues to try to deliver for citizens in a rational and sane way.

Senator Burke mentioned the high level of ministerial attendance at Council meetings, for which I thank him. I am glad he noted this because we have worked intensively and have created a whole new structure in Government. I chair an interdepartmental committee which is almost exclusively dedicated to monitoring engagement with all European institutions on behalf of the Government. We have certainly raised our game which is essential in the pursuit of our interests, both as a nation and as a component part of the European Union. We have to be there at the table to share our views and advance our policy agenda, whether this is on the banking union, the separation of debt or whatever. We have to be at the table advocating loudly and coherently and building alliances, and we are investing much time in doing that.

There was a question about the European Parliament which goes into the area of the questions raised by Deputy Murphy so, if I may, I will take them together. I will not go into the rights and wrongs of the reduction of the number of seats by one seat. Our representatives cannot cover all the European Parliament committees on our behalf, which is unfair. I have been doing much thinking on this. Small and medium-sized countries are disadvantaged in the European Parliament. On the other hand, if one takes Germany or France or the bigger countries, these are not represented proportionately in the European Parliament so they can argue very coherently they are disadvantaged because they are not represented on a per capitabasis. There is something fundamentally flawed about that whether one comes at it from the perspective of a big country or a small country and we must do something to achieve an equilibrium. We must do something to ensure that every member state is represented and heard and that will be a big challenge. I suppose that is where I depart from my colleagues, the other European affairs Ministers, or at least from most of them, in that I believe there will be a requirement for treaty change in the future. Not today, not before the European elections but in the medium term we will have to do something to seriously overhaul the institutional framework of the European Union. I do not buy into blaming the Commission for everything, blaming the Parliament or the Council - it is not a blame game. The institutions have served us reasonably well to this point but we are moving into a new phase where we have an integrated monetary union and will have greater economic co-ordination. We have to make it more accountable and must connect it more to the citizens. Undoubtedly, there is a role for national parliaments but there must be a better role for the European Parliament and other institutions.

The Deputy asked for my personal views. I am not representing the Government in this respect; I believe we have a lot of work to do in terms of framing a Government policy on some of these issues. That is a job for after the European Presidency when we have more time. However, if I were asked, I would like to see a situation where every member state is represented equally in some sort of upper Chamber. This is something for which Declan Ganley, for example, has advocated. I do not agree with Mr. Ganley on many issues but on this one I do. If we are to have a meaningful legislature which represents the interests of all corners of Europe, of the so-called periphery, the core, north, south, big, small, then we need a Chamber where everybody is represented equally, which has an input and full representation in the legislative process. That is a very big leap and is not something that will happen in the immediate term but it will have to happen. It would allow the European Parliament, the lower Chamber of Deputies, to be proportionately representative of the population of Europe, which would be the quid pro quo.

I refer to the directly elected President of the Commission. That role will have to be defined. It is an EPP policy and also one my party espouses. Again, I am not speaking on behalf of the Government on this point. I do not know what the socialist or liberal positions are on this nor indeed the position of other political groups across Europe. The idea of a directly elected President of the Commission is hugely important. Would that person also chair the Council? I believe he or she probably should in order to bring the institutions closer together. Should the Commissioners be directly elected? That is something to which we must give further consideration. Can we continue to have 27 or 28, 30 or 32 Commissioners? My view on this is on the record. Before the second vote on the Lisbon treaty I made the point to campaigners who opposed the referendum that we do not get everything we like. I have never believed every member state should at all times have a Commissioner.

Since we enlarged to 27 member states, my view has been that we should have a rotational Commission, one where we could have a front bench and back bench, almost like Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State so that resources could be concentrated with spokespeople representing the clear core policy areas of the Union. We are making up commissionerships at this point which is not credible. At a time when everybody is talking about cutting back on the cost of government and reducing the number of ministries and junior ministries in member states, why on earth should we continue to expand at EU level? That is my personal view and it is obviously not a stated view of the Government.

When it comes to how the Commission will be selected on this occasion, we have an interesting new departure because each of the main political groupings will put forward a candidate for the presidency, not to be voted on directly across the Union - we have not come to that point yet. However, the candidate for the EPP will lead the EPP campaign across Europe, the candidate for the socialists will lead the socialist campaign and the candidate for the liberals will lead for the liberals. Possibly the Green Party and others will do the same - that has yet to be determined. Certainly the three biggest political groupings will have a lead candidate to go forward for election, setting out a manifesto and political platform. That is a positive development and will raise the debate in terms of focusing more effectively on pan-European issues than on previous campaigns. It is a step forward based on the provisions of the Lisbon treaty. We have yet to see how it will work and how the political groupings will select their candidates. We do not know how the candidates will fair and whether they will run campaigns across every EU state as I certainly hope is the case. It is a new departure - a trial - but an exciting one that I believe will enhance and give a face to the European elections making it a bit more real for people.

Senator Colm Burke asked about the role of the Seanad. I have spoken about this on the record in the Seanad. I believe I have been asked about this every time I have appeared in the Seanad in the past two years. Every time I have said that I believe the role for the Seanad in EU scrutiny is an obvious one. It would mirror the role of the House of Lords in the UK and mirror upper houses in many other member states. It would enhance the level of scrutiny that I firmly support. It is ultimately a decision for the Seanad and I urge the Senator and his colleagues to pursue it doggedly because there is an obvious gap that could be filled very effectively by the Seanad.

I hope I have touched upon pretty much everything. I may not have answered everything in great detail, but I believe I have hit on most of the points that have been made.

2:45 pm

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State and I appreciate her attendance for our discussions today.