Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
European Parliament Information Office in Ireland: Discussion
We have received apologies from Senators Richmond and Craughwell. The usual mobile phone notice is given. Please ensure to have them turned off if at all possible. Today we have engagement with Mr. James Temple-Smithson, who is the head of the European Parliament Information Office in Ireland. We have met him previously and, on behalf of the committee, I welcome him here today. I understand he has been in his new role for a couple of months, so I welcome him to both the committee and Dublin.
Strong engagement with the European Parliament is very important to this committee and Members of European Parliament elected from constituencies in Ireland are welcome to join our meetings. Members from this committee and others have taken part in interparliamentary meetings, we engage through the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs, COSAC, and a delegation from this committee recently travelled to Brussels and met a number of MEPs. I am, therefore, sure that the members will be interested in engaging with Mr. Temple-Smithson today on the work of his office and how we could be improving our engagement. I always say in situations like this that the more engagement we can have and the more that we as Members of the Dáil and the Seanad can help his office, the more we would like that. We want to be helpful and supportive in every way that we can.
Members are reminded of the longstanding parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside of the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter but continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Mr. Temple-Smithson to make his opening remarks.
Mr. James Temple-Smithson:
I thank the Chairman for inviting me to address the committee. It is a great honour to appear before the committee today. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak a little about the work and role of the European Parliament Information Office in Ireland. As the committee heard, I became head of the office recently. If I may, I will divide what I will say into three sections. I will speak a little about our day-to-day work. Then I will speak about the relations between the European Parliament and national parliaments, in particular the Houses of the Oireachtas. Then I will say a few words on the big communications challenges I see over the next couple of years, which include those relating to Brexit and the European elections that are looming in 2019.
It is important to underline that the parameters for everything we do are set out for us by the governing body of the European Parliament - the bureau - which is made up of the President and the Vice-Presidents. They set our terms of reference and approve our major projects. I think our annual report has been circulated to the committee. As it will see from the report, in a nutshell our job is to communicate about the work and role of the European Parliament and its members to Irish audiences. There are four strands that we pursue, although I will not speak about them in detail, except to give some examples.
The core of our work relates to parliamentary activity and communication activities we undertake with regard to the agenda of the European Parliament. For example, early last month we held what we called a stakeholder consultation on the posted workers directive, to which we were delighted to welcome Senator Craughwell, one of the committee's colleagues. We gathered 20 or so of the organisations that are most impacted by and that would have the most impact on this controversial proposed legislation and gave them an opportunity to discuss with the rapporteur and draughtsman of the legislation, who came over from Brussels. They had the opportunity to hear from her and to give their thoughts on the legislation at an early stage. The legislation was due for its first committee discussion immediately after our event, which was chaired by Ms Deirdre Clune, MEP.
We have a series of programmes related to youth, mainly through the education system, where we provide information to teachers and students in primary and secondary schools, particularly transition year students, as well as in further education institutions.
There is an important media strand to our work. We work with Irish journalists to provide information about the European Parliament. Our press officer is extremely busy at the moment because the Taoiseach will be in Brussels meeting the President of the European Parliament tomorrow, as I am sure the committee know. We also have a large number of Irish journalists attending the plenary session in March because it is widely anticipated that there will be some Brexit developments. They might not take place in the Parliament but they may take place about that time and the Parliament will be an important actor.
The final aspect to our communications activities is that we no longer just do things and hope for the best. We really try to measure the impact of our work. In common with all parts of the European Parliament, we have key performance indicators. We are still working through the methodology for the indicator for communications. It is not a precise science and it is not finalised. We have not got the magic formula yet, but our key metric is the hours of attention that we are able to generate for our work.
I will now turn to Parliament relations. I have to mention an important caveat, which is that the first Vice-President of the European Parliament is one of the Irish MEPs responsible for relations with national parliaments. I wish to make clear that I am not speaking on her behalf here. She is new to the role, being just a few weeks into it. What I am speaking about, therefore, is everything that went before she took over. I have not had the opportunity to discuss with her directly. I would like to make that clear. I am sure she will have ideas of her own that she will develop over the coming months and we look forward to following up on them.
There is one other important preliminary remark to be made. The Chairman referred to this in his opening remarks and in a sense I know that I am preaching to the converted because the Oireachtas is widely recognised as one of the most progressive and proactive national parliaments in terms of engaging with the European processes and the European Parliament. The Chairman referred to MEPs attending the committee's hearings and the committee heard how much that was valued from the Vice-President of the Commission, Mr. Timmermans, when he was here last week, when Brian Hayes was here to put questions to him. I know the committee makes use of video-conferencing. This is a technology that the European Parliament has invested in. We think it offers a great deal of potential to help join up the levels, particularly between ourselves and European Parliaments. I would like to underline that we in our office enjoy extremely good contact at official level with the committee's clerk, Ms Lougheed, and with its representative in Brussels, Ms Hayes. We very much value those relationships and are keen to develop them.
The committee does not need me to go over the established mechanisms that the Chairman referred to such as COSAC and the yellow card. However, it is fair to say that the European Parliament in recent years has been keen to develop relations with national parliaments, both formally and informally, through the interparliamentary meetings that the Chairman mentioned. This week there is one on asylum and next week there will be one related to International Women's Day and women in the labour market. Although I know that there are some reservations about it, I think the European Parliament has been keen to develop the notion of a green card concept as a sort of counterpoint to the yellow card.
On the less formal side, there is now a process where the European Parliament writes, on the back of the Commission work programme each year, to national parliaments. Under the current Commission we have identified in each work programme that there are perhaps 20 to 25 important pieces of new legislation that are, in fact, reviews of existing legislation.
That implies a slight change in the business model of the European Parliament, which has traditionally been focused on passing new legislation. When that new legislation is reviewing legislation that already exists, we are shifting a bit. The European Parliament wants to take a more holistic approach. It is recognised that close partnership with national parliaments is very important in that respect. Where there is existing legislation, national parliaments are perhaps best placed to inform whether that legislation has worked, has been implemented, has achieved what it is supposed to achieve, has been defective or is in fact totally fine and does not need reviewing. There are the established processes of White Papers and Green Papers tabled by the commission. It is important for a parallel process to take place at parliamentary level. That is something the European Parliament has been pushing with this initiative. In this context, we were very pleased to receive substantial and interesting input from the agriculture committee on some of the proposals in the work programme last year.
In a slight side note to that, we have established on the parliament's website relatively recently a repository for information and studies about the implementation of European legislation, which is open to anyone, national parliaments, local councils and local authorities, to upload work that they have undertaken that is then available to other jurisdictions and to MEPs. It free for anyone to upload or download. We hope that will help to join some of the dots that are perhaps not joined at the moment in the EU system.
The final point I want to mention about the connection between the parliaments is the European Parliamentary Research Service, EPRS, established in 2013. It has a clear remit to co-operate with the research and library services of national parliaments. I know that it has good contacts with Ireland's own Library and Research Service. We believe that the research that our EPRS does can compliment the work of the research services of national parliaments, which inevitably have to focus their limited resources on the domestic agenda. With the scale and expertise we can offer, we believe it can help with the understanding of European developments. Last year, the EPRS produced over 1,000 products that ranged from two-page at-a-glance summaries of items on the parliamentary agenda up to detailed and in-depth analyses and studies that really got to grips with policy challenges and proposals.
Before I conclude, I will say a quick word on where these two worlds of communicating about the European Parliament and relations between parliaments collide. That is at the members' initiative. We are now looking at ways in which we can work with Deputies and Senators to provide to them information about the products and services we can offer that can help them in their work in the European dimension and help with communication on European matters where it is of assistance to them. One thing we would like to do in that respect is invite Members or their staff to a training day in Europe House where we can set out some of these databases and European information sources that we hope will be helpful. We hope to be in contact with Deputies and Senators shortly about that.
I said that I would say a couple of words on the challenges ahead. Brexit is obviously a challenge in all walks of life and no less in communications. It is funny that it is the reverse of a problem we often have when we are communicating about the European Parliament, which is that we often have a lot of information that we are desperately trying to interest people in. Whereas with regard to Brexit, a lot of people are desperately interested in it, but so far we have not had that much information to communicate. I guess that after Article 50 is triggered, that will change. Once the European Parliament passes its resolution, which we anticipate will happen before Easter, we will have a basis for ourselves to communicate about the position of the parliament.
The Chairman referred to the committee's visit to Brussels recently. Members met the key players, Mr. Verhofstadt, Mr. Barnier and other MEPs. The committee is well-informed about this issue. Once we move into the spring, I anticipate that we will step up our efforts in this area when the parliament has set out a position. For example, we are planning an event in Dundalk in May to look at the impact on environmental policy in the cross-Border context of Brexit. Once the debate gets into the nitty-gritty a bit more, I anticipate that we will identify more areas in which we can usefully add value by arranging that sort of discussion and event.
We are just starting to think seriously now about our institutional information campaign that we will conduct with regard to the European elections. To be very clear, that is not at all the political campaign that will go on separately. We conduct an institutional information campaign that is, of course, politically neutral by which our aim is to inform people of the fact of the European elections, that they are taking place and a little bit about what is at stake. In particular, as we have done in the past, I imagine this time we will put a focus on young people and first-time voters who are traditionally less likely to turn out and try to encourage them to register and vote in these elections.
We are just starting to think about these challenges. Much has changed in political communications over the last year. There are more elections this year in which more will change. It is already clear that some of the challenges we will face include tackling fake news by providing fast and accurate information to members. How we will work with our partners in Ireland on this project is something else that we are looking at. In this area in particular, I would very much welcome any input and thoughts from members. That would be extremely instructive for me. I thank the committee for its attention. I would be delighted to respond to any remarks or questions.
I welcome Mr. Temple-Smithson. I congratulate him. He comes at a very important time and juncture in terms of the relationship between the individual member states and the European institutions of the parliament and the Commission. He also comes at a very important time from the point of view of the international image of the EU, where it is going and where it is likely to end up. Unfortunately, it would appear to some of us at least that the EU has begun to drift. The philosophy of the EU has become indistinct. The vision of the EU is not as pronounced as it used to be. There are various groups throughout the EU - albeit not the most powerful or pivotal groups at this stage but nonetheless influential - that have another vision for the Continent and the EU. We also have Brexit. All of this presents a huge challenge to us.
I would be a strong supporter of the European concept. Without that unity, cohesion and travelling in the same direction at the same time, I believe that Europe would be much the poorer. It is impossible for Europe to survive without there being a recognition of the general broad thrust of where European policy was supposed to go and where the founding fathers of modern Europe had expected it to go. We know that it had an inspiration at the time. It was born out of despair. When formed, the European Coal and Steel Community was there for a purpose. We know what the purpose was. All of that has become a bit nebulous in recent times. There is an urgent necessity for the EU to reassess itself. I am not going to mention any individual countries, but there are member states that seem to have moved away from the vision of Europe. I am of the view that Europe cannot survive that way. It has never survived in the past for very long when going in that direction. I do not believe it can do so now. There are those who suggest that we are in modern times, that we are in a different time and a different era and that we are not going to make the mistakes we made before. I am sorry but that is not a fact and that is not true. The mistakes have been repeated hundreds of times all down through the millennia. There is no reason why that will not happen again.
I compliment the witness with regard to the focus on youth. We need to depend on the young generation to identify with that modern vision of Europe. We need them to express to us what their vision for Europe in the future is and will remain. We need them to recognise the strength in unity throughout Europe and where that can go. I have mentioned it before, but I thought it was a really sad sight when refugees were coming across the borders into Europe in recent years and one of the images promoted was that of razor wire.
Razor wire is something of which Europeans should be wary. Its production to greet children and adults running away from war and famine and in fear of what would follow is a very sad reflection on sophisticated people and cohesive groups. It is sad that the best that could be offered to the people in question was a hands-off approach which did irreparable damage to the image of Europe at the time. I am the first to admit that it was not the European Union's policy but that of individual member states. There is a need for individual member states to take ownership of the European project, a topic we have talked about here before. If we do not take ownership of it, it will drift and create serious problems for each member state and even countries that are not member states. Unless there is a clear recognition that we have a destiny that binds us together, we will return to the position we were in before joining. Some of us were lucky enough to see the European Union emerging virtually from the beginning and would not like to see it disintegrate. I have begun to notice, as I am sure everybody else has, various spokespersons, committees of the European Parliament and even individual Commissioners from time to time comment on and correct individual member states. That is not their function as they are not our political masters. Their job is to recognise what we have to say, as individual member states, and adopt it in a global European policy. They must respect member states and their unfortunate public representatives and regimes.
I apologise to the Chairman for talking so long.
I thank Mr. Temple-Smithson from the European Parliament Information Office for his presentation. One thing of which parliamentarians are not short is information. We experience information overload on a daily basis. Having said that, from time to time we need specific information, particularly on what is happening in the European Parliament. We need concise information because very often we receive queries from constituents about particular problems or proposed legislation. It is welcome that Mr. Temple-Smithson has made his office available to us to that end.
I have a few specific questions. My first question relates to a point made by Mr. Temple-Smithson about the European Parliament elections to be held in 2019. He has a serious job of work to do to ensure citizens will engage in those elections. Irish people, by and large, do not take elections to the European Parliament seriously. Some do but many do not. Very often elections to the European Parliament are used to have a protest vote or to campaign on a particular local issue. Many candidates are hostile to the notion of the European Union in the first place, which is a shame. We, therefore, need to engage citizens in the work of the European Parliament and the European institutions as a whole. Obviously, that is not only a job for Mr. Temple-Smithson's office but for all of us. Citizens or voters do not really engage in elections to the European Parliament until two and half weeks before polling day. We all have a job of work to do to change that. I wish Mr. Temple-Smithson well in his endeavours. As parliamentarians, we must raise the profile of the elections and the issues to be debated once the election campaign starts.
I wish to discuss Brexit. As the Chairman said and Mr. Temple-Smithson mentioned in his address, members of this committee visited the European institutions recently. We met some MEPs, including Mr. Guy Verhofstadt. It was mentioned to us that the committees of the European Parliament were working on sectoral issues related to Brexit. For example, how can each of the committees scope out the issues to be addressed as the negotiations get under way? Does Mr. Temple-Smithson have any information to give us on the matter? I vaguely remember hearing that 20 reports had been commissioned by various committees of the European Parliament. Has the initiative progressed? Have the reports been finalised? If so, can we access copies of them? From an Irish point of view, it would be useful for parliamentarians and the Government to have the information contained in them to see how the issues have been scoped out and to learn what the concerns are in order to pursue the issues raised.
I want to follow through on some of the issues raised by my colleagues. We all accept that there is a democratic deficit in the European Union, but there is also an information deficit. Providing information is the role of Mr. Temple-Smithson's office. There is also a credibility issue. The latest issue about which people are talking is the agreement reached on roaming charges in the use of mobile phones under which the same rates will apply anywhere in the European Union. The various mobile phone companies have, however, come up with excuses to combat the move. People can see straightaway that the measure should have a positive impact. When one travels to the North from County Monaghan, one will receive a welcome to the UK message and details of charges. There was enough goodwill to tackle the issue of roaming charges, but, in reality, the mobile phone companies can do what they like. As people want to know what the current position is, I ask Mr. Temple-Smithson to comment on the issue. I do not know if he has the background information available, but roaming charges in the European Union are one of the issues which cause frustration.
Members of the committee have mentioned the European Parliament elections to be held in 2019. The number of voters has fallen in consecutive elections since universal suffrage was introduced in 1979. There has been a turnout of less than 50% in every election. In the years from 1999 to 2014 the average figure was 42.54%. People have switched off, not just in Ireland, which is a big worry. The European Parliament Information Office has a role to play in encouraging people to become involved and learn how the European Parliament works. The exchange programmes involving young people and different groups are vitally important. Are they organised by Mr. Temple-Smithson's office or MEPs? Can Mr. Temple-Smithson's office facilitate exchanges? There used to be a very busy outreach office on Molesworth Street but it has been relocated to new premises that do not have the same facilities. It was possible on the old site to hold meetings and debates on the European Union, etc. Some MEPs have expressed their frustration to me that the option to hold meetings on site is no longer available.
A total of 73 seats in the European Parliament are filled by British Members. What will happen to these seats following Brexit? Will they be divided between the other member states? How will that impact on Ireland?
As Mr. Temple-Smithson probably knows, people from the North of Ireland have been elected to the European Parliament. When a debate is held on Ireland, all representatives from the North and the South are invited, which is important. Does the European Parliament Information Office in Dublin cover the activities of parliamentarians from the North? Is it allowed to do so? Does Mr. Temple-Smithson think undertaking such work would be a good idea? I am conscious that many Members elected to the European Parliament and many voters who participated in the elections in the North of Ireland consider themselves to be Irish.
It is part of the strategy many members are engaged in at the moment. Can I have ciúnas?
We are all inundated with sports capital grants and so on, particularly at the moment. It is hell to access grants coming from Europe. Do people come through the witness's office? I know the southern regional assembly used to be involved in information for different organisations that were looking for funding from Europe. It is positive that people see there is funding and linkage money there. How do we get that across to those organisations?
On what Mr. Temple-Smithson said about the European Parliamentary Research Service, EPRS, and its contacts with the library service and so on, how do parliamentarians access that?
The petition system within the parliament gives Irish citizens another area to raise their own issues, such as taxi deregulation. One does not hear of many people taking up that petitions role. Does it still exist? How do people do it? We are inundated with different individuals and organisations coming to us with concerns over the failure of the Oireachts and other legislative organisations to deal with their difficulties. What can we do as Europeans in that regard?
I welcome Mr. Temple-Smithson to the committee.
A very important point was raised by Deputy Crowe. Although it may have a property nearby, I have never attended the European Parliament Information Office since it moved away from the Oireachtas. I am sure this is true for a lot of people. I think the witness's colleagues should look at that situation.
I was in London with the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly on Monday and Tuesday with the MPs and Lords in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Brexit debate was taking place in the House of Lords. It is full steam ahead as far as Britain is concerned. By 30 March, Article 50 will be invoked. We have intense negotiations and discussions taking place. Ireland will play a pivotal role in this regard. Ireland's interests must be protected in the negotiations. It is not the witness's responsibility. It is very important to inform the other member states of the situation we are in due to the decision by the British Government to leave the European Union. We joined with the United Kingdom in 1973. We negotiated separately, yet we joined on the same day. We joined under certain terms at the time and we are not leaving. We want to ensure an arrangement is put in place to ensure the departure of the United Kingdom will not be detrimental to the Republic of Ireland.
When we are exporting to mainland Europe, it is vital that we have complete free access through the United Kingdom without any levies or tariffs. That would be very much part and parcel of the agreement. It is absolutely based on the fact that there will hopefully no tariffs on exporting to the United Kingdom. There is deep concern regarding agriculture. It is of paramount importance that no such levies would apply to exporting to the United Kingdom. Our negotiators in the 27 countries will be taking a very active role in this regard. It is a time of great concern here. It is of great concern to the agricultural community, where prices are seeing an immediate drop, which is a very serious prospect for the future.
One clear point made in the House of Commons and House of Lords was that the free movement of people in the island of Ireland is of paramount importance and must and will be retained at all costs. No Irish Government will agree to the erection of barriers or customs posts between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These issues were discussed in detail. The MPs and Lords indicated they very much support the free movement of people throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. They also support the preservation of the common travel area between the United Kingdom and Ireland. It has been there since 1923, long before the European Union. Those are the issues which are relevant at the moment. They are concentrating the minds of all Members of the Dáil and Seanad, the House of Lords and the House of Commons and, hopefully, members of parliament in the other 26 member states.
I was asking my senior colleague here a question. I thought my voice was sufficiently low. I apologise.
I welcome Mr. Temple-Smithson, and congratulate him on his permanent appointment in January. As Deputy Crowe said, there is a general information and democratic deficit as regards European affairs. Apart from this committee, and the good work the Chairman has been doing in meeting many different people and bringing them in to the committee and so on, there is even a problem within parliament, aside from the Brexit issue. Brexit is something the witness can hang much of his programme on. Irish people instinctively feel European, as opposed to being British or whatever. While they are our great friends and all the rest of it, and we have a long association with them, we are going to be on the other side of the table, unfortunately, in these negotiations. It would be wonderful if we could work out a bilateral arrangement with them and have it accepted by the EU. I would say that anything that the witness is doing, either with the parliament or with the public, he can build it on Brexit. It is so concerning to all citizens and to parliamentarians that it is going to be dominant, possibly for the next few years. There will be no divorce for two years. Britain are going to remain members of the European Union and presumably or hopefully after that there be a transition arrangement. I urge the witness to do anything he can do to build better cohesion and provide more information and better involvement in the legislative cycle at European level by involving Brexit in it some way. The more, the better.
Mr. James Temple-Smithson:
I thank the members for their welcome advice and encouragement. I will try to respond to all points raised. Please let me know if I do not.
It is well established that the question of the image and direction of the European Union is one that occupies the minds of communicators and politicians. I agree that young people are a very important target for us to focus on. There is a lot of survey evidence that shows that people under 30 are the demographic most enthusiastic about the European project. This has been demonstrated not just in the Brexit vote, but everywhere in Europe. It is very important for us to foster and encourage that. The big challenge for us in the European Parliament is that that enthusiasm for Europe does not necessarily manifest itself in people turning out to vote in European elections. That is a big challenge that we face.
I will now turn to the issue of the campaign. I believe it is particularly relevant to young people, but the timing of our campaign for the EU elections, and timing in politics, as in everything, is critical, and in the 2014 EU elections we started trying to communicate in September before the elections the following June. That was probably too early and we spread ourselves too thinly. At the same time, it is true that the majority of attention is paid in the last two weeks, but we cannot leave the campaign until the last two weeks. Getting that balance, and how we build up to a crescendo in the last two weeks, is something we need to look at in our campaign.
On the status of the specialist committee reports, the body in charge of co-ordinating the European Parliament's response on Brexit is the leaders of the political groups, the Conference of Presidents. The reports were produced and sent to them. For the time being they have not taken any decision on the status of the reports. This is a kind of ad hocprocess and there is no decision on the status of whether they will be published. They have been pretty comprehensively leaked. I have read all about them in the newspapers but not through the official European Parliament channels. That is understood and perhaps the group will consider releasing these reports as they have been quite widely reported, but I do not know what the position is. I will find out and write to the committee to let it know the position in this regard.
Reference was made to concrete benefits. The point made about mobile roaming is very interesting in the context of the Border. It feeds into my earlier points on the European Parliament needing that information about areas, for example, where the implementation of EU directives is not working properly or is malfunctioning. That is the sort of information that needs to be fed in through whatever channels to parliamentarians and to the European Commission in order that they know that is the case. I am not sure if there is official awareness that this is the case. The status of that legislation in the North after 2019 is an open question. Whether the situation will improve is also contingent on what happens there.
Deputy Crowe spoke of the turnout in the EU elections. There are six people in our office so we cannot take full responsibility for the level of turnout, but we need all the help we can get. This is why I was very grateful for the Chairman's suggestion and initiative to try to involve politicians at all levels in Ireland with that. We would be very grateful for any assistance and will try to mobiles all the resources we can.
We can certainly assist with visits to the European Parliament. We help a lot with such programmes when universities are travelling over. We do not really have any financial resources. The MEPs have a certain number of groups per year that they can sponsor and they contribute in that way. We are always happy to help with logistical advice, planning and suggestions. We can contact MEPs for the groups and help them to put together a good programme in order that they get a really good experience when they are there. If the Deputy is referring to assistance with travel costs, that is really in the hands of the Members.
There is a long story attached to our premises on Lower Mount Street, which pre-dates me. It is a great shame that we are where we are. We do still have facilities and hold events, but we do not have the footfall. I read recently that in the previous building we had one person employed full-time to deal with walk-in inquiries from members of the public, and that person was busy all the time. The footfall at our current location creates one or two walk-in inquiries per day. That is a great shame. Looking to the future, we rent the building we are now in, we do not own it and the lease is for a certain period of time. After that, the lease will be up and it may be possible to move again. The prices in this part of the city are quite prohibitive but the location is important for the sort of facility we want to offer. We want to be able to improve what we offer to citizens and to people who have inquiries, as well as for meetings. That is well understood by the political authorities in the European Parliament and Commission, so let us see where that situation gets to.
I am not sure that I understood the point made about parliamentarians visiting. When parliamentarians from Ireland visit the European Parliament, there is a communication effort for those events, which is handled by our colleagues in the press department in the Parliament in Brussels. If Members are visiting from here and if they contact us, we can certainly hook them up with the press team in Brussels in order that they can link up and understand what is going on, especially if there are images being put out on Facebook or Twitter that members want to re-tweet, share or otherwise benefit from.
The European Union Parliament issues a limited number of grants in the area of media and communications. There was a new call for expressions of interest last week on media and events related grants. These are specific to the communications field and most of the grants are administered by the European Commission. We hold a number of events in this area but we must be careful how we market them. Since we are not the body giving the grant, we do not want to disappoint people by telling them to come along to an event about EU funding to find out how to get money. Our thing is normally a bit more upstream than that, but we hope to hold an event in April about the EU budget for next year and financing the EU in the long term. It is not, however, about organisations getting grants directly, although that also exists and we can help to point people in the right direction if members have constituents who are interested.
I will now turn to access to the European Parliamentary Research Service. At the moment it is largely channelled through the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, but there are various mailing lists and alerts for which Members can sign up and we will happily put people directly into contact with them and talk them through it. If we do hold this information session, which I would very much like to do for Members or their staff, we will explain in detail how they can sign up to get this information. No one wants to get spammed by thousands of publications per year, but they want to get the interesting, concise information directly relevant to their work.
The petition process still very much exists. We get inquiries about it and we explain to people how the petitions process works. There are petitioners from Ireland on a regular basis whose petitions are considered routinely in the committee. One of the innovations in the legislative cycle project is around the review of existing legislation. When reviews happen, the European Parliament looks at petitions. If there are a couple of dozen petitions about particular legislation, then we know this flags up a problem with the legislation and it should be taken into account by MEPs when that legislation is reviewed. This had not happened in the past but it does now. If anything, the petitions process has a more robust presence in the system than perhaps it did before.
Senator Leyden asked about the move of our premises. He is right that the politics of Brexit are not for my level, but I believe it is important for MEPs to understand the dynamics and what is at stake in Ireland. In our small way, in our reporting back to MEPs and the authorities, we communicate that and we do our best to make sure it is understood. We invite MEPs from other countries to attend our events. For example, MEPs from other countries will be invited to the event in Dundalk on the environment. They will see for themselves and hear at first hand the issues. We can contribute to the understanding of the issues in a small way.
Brexit will be the top issue and will feature prominently in our activities. It is an opportunity and people are interested in the subject. There is a real dearth of information and we can add value through our activities. I thank the Chairman and the committee. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and for the members' encouragement.
I thank Mr. Temple-Smithson. On behalf of the members of the committee, we look forward to working and engaging with him in a very positive and workmanlike way. If there is any way that the secretariat, the members or I can facilitate Mr. Temple-Smithson, we are at the disposal of him and his good staff. We thank him for engaging with the committee about the Commission's plans. We very much appreciate his time.