Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 17 October 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Preparations for the European Parliament Elections 2019: Discussion
Preparations are being made for the European Parliament elections in 2019. We are glad today to have engagement with Mr. James Temple-Smithson. With the European Parliament elections coming in May, this is a good time to start our engagement on planning for that election. The European Parliament Constituency Committee has made its recommendations on how to organise the constituencies, and specifically how to reallocate the additional seats given to Ireland in light of the UK leaving the EU. No doubt once the Government has considered those recommendations, the required heads of Bill will be published. This all follows on, of course, from the European Parliament's own decision in February and the option by the European Council in June.
These elections will come at an important time for the European Union and it is as important as ever that citizens are engaged in that process. The results released today from the Eurobarometer show that 36% of the people in Ireland are already aware of when the European elections will be held and 58% of the people in Ireland say that they are interested in the election. We have more work to do about that and creating more awareness.
It is helpful that we have Mr. Temple-Smithson here today with us. As is the norm here in this committee, I will ask Mr. Temple-Smithson to make his opening statement and then I will go to the members.
First of all, I am obligated to remind members and Mr. Temple-Smithson of the rules of privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House 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. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, 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 asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. Temple-Smithson to make his opening statement.
Mr. James Temple-Smithson:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting me. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the European elections, which I realise for most normal people are some way over the horizon but for us are really imminent. We are at cruising altitude and working hard and will continue to do so.
It is a shame about the video-conferencing with MEPs but I note that intensive efforts are made by colleagues here to include MEPs in these meetings. Lesser people would throw their hands up and give up, but that is not what happens. I note that the continued efforts made are very much appreciated on the European Parliament side and thank the committee for its continued efforts.
The European Parliament elections take place across the EU on 23-26 May next year. Traditionally, before European elections, the European Parliament runs an information campaign, which we run centrally from Brussels and then at a decentralised level in our 35 liaison offices in the member states. I use the term "information campaign" deliberately and advisedly to distinguish it from the political campaign that precedes the elections. It is worth underlining at the outset here that our campaign is strictly non-political and non-partisan and consists purely of providing information, but information that we hope is presented in a creative way and is well targeted at the audience we are trying to reach
We seek to inform people about the work and role of the European Parliament and the remit of MEPs, as well as some of the legislative and policy achievements of the Parliament, particularly during the past five years, and we highlight the date of the election and explain the electoral process. In that regard, the big innovation next year will be the two additional seats that were allocated to Ireland by the European Council decision in June and the changes to the constituencies that flow from that.
For the time being we are proceeding on the basis that we think polling day will be on 24 May and that the constituencies will be as proposed by the Constituency Commission at the end of last month, but of course our job will be much easier once these elements are legally confirmed.
Similarly, in the field of known unknowns, we are anticipating local electionson the same day but we are also waiting to see if there will be one or more referendums too, which would obviously have a bearing on the political landscape.
Committee members will be aware that turnout in European elections in Ireland has tended more recently to be above the EU average. It was 52% at the last election against an EU average of 43%. However, as with Europe and the rest of the western world, the trend is for a gradual decline in participation and we are trying to contribute to redressing that. Part of the explanation for the higher turnout in Ireland is the generally positive attitude towards the EU. The Chairman referred earlier to the latest Eurobarometer survey which was published today. The field work was done in late September and the survey confirms what we know to be an overwhelmingly positive sentiment in Ireland towards the EU. A full 92% of those surveyed felt that Ireland has benefited from EU membership. The Chairman interpreted the next statistic differently from me. I understood that 40% of Irish respondents said they were not interested in the upcoming European elections, which is slightly higher than when we last asked the question in April.
We have a twofold challenge in the forthcoming election information campaign. The first is to reach out to the people who say they are not interested and to try to interest them by explaining what is at stake in European elections. The second is to galvanise those who are interested but who, for one reason or another, may not actually make it to the polling station on election day. We will be targeting both deliberate and inadvertent abstainers. Of course, the campaign is aimed at the entire voting age population but there is one demographic segment in Ireland where voting in European elections is well below the EU average, namely those under 25. Turnout was only 21% for this group in 2014, as compared to 37% for those aged 25 to 39, 60% for those between 40 and 54 and 76% for those over 55. In that context, we perceive a need to place particular emphasis on younger and first-time voters. We are not the first people to come along and say that we need to do more to encourage young people to vote. There is a lot of evidence which suggests that if people vote the first time they are eligible, they are much more likely to continue voting. Conversely, if they do not vote the first time they are eligible, they are much less likely to pick up the habit as they get older. This is part of a longer-term effort and is something to which I am personally very committed. We run a number of programmes to try to address this issue, not least of which is our ambassador school programme of which members may be aware. We have a shared interest with colleagues in the Oireachtas on this front and we have had some very productive discussions with Mr. Conor Reale from the outreach section of the House of the Oireachtas. We have identified some areas of shared interest and we are looking forward to working together to deepen that relationship and see what we can do together.
A central plank of our campaign is the website, www.thistimeimvoting.eu, where people can pledge to vote and encourage their friends and family to do so too. This has been launched across the EU in the past fortnight but we are waiting until after the presidential election to launch it here because we did not want to run the risk of causing confusion by having a big promotion of the website in the run up to that election. There will be three phases to our campaign, the first running from November to February when we will be encouraging people to make sure they are registered to vote. The core phase will be from February to April when we will be focusing on what is at stake in the European election and why voting matters. After Easter and into May we will step back and leave the field to the political parties and will concentrate on promoting the date of the election and reminding people to vote.
We hope to work with the grain on the aforementioned phases. We have had some productive discussions with officials in the Department for Housing, Planning and Local Government about how we might work with them, particularly during the voter registration phase of the campaign. We intend to be in touch with local authorities and any referendum commission that may be in place at the appropriate juncture. We are also working with a range of civil society actors and stakeholder organisations on www.thistimeimvoting.euand providing them with resources for the European elections. Like all campaigns these days, the online component is extremely important but it is certainly not the only one. If we are to reach everybody, we cannot run a campaign exclusively online. There is always room for good old fashioned printed material. One of the things we will be offering on that front is a county-by-county leaflet explaining the mechanics of the election in each county and outlining what the EU has done for that county. We will also be engaging with journalists, preparing radio advertisements and campaign videos and so on. Although it is clearly true that a growing number of people get their news and information online, the majority still get their news from radio and television which, along with newspapers, are the more trusted sources of information. These media will therefore be a big part of the mix for our campaign.
We also intend to promote as much as possible the so-called Spitzenkandidaten or lead candidate process, which featured for the first time in the last European elections. The European Parliament strongly endorsed this process in a resolution in February 2018. It will feature prominently in our efforts to promote interest in the European elections. There is a very strong case for a debate between the lead candidates taking place in Ireland in the run up to the European elections, not least because this will happen immediately in the aftermath of 29 March next year. The next Commission President will be a key figure in terms of what happens in the next phases of the Brexit process. That is obviously of acute interest. A debate taking place here will also take place in English and will be accessible to broadcasters from all around Europe and is capable of generating interest far beyond Ireland and could be a Europe-wide event. It is not something that our office can host but we would encourage others to do so and are certainly ready to provide advice on same. We have started some conversations about it. The two big elements that we are trying to put in place are buy-in from the European political parties, who we hope will encourage their candidates to commit to such a debate and buy in from a major media partner because that is what makes political debates fly. We have started some work behind the scenes on that. It would be a serious lacuna if there were not to be a debate among the lead candidates in Ireland in the spring.
The information campaign runs up until the election but does not stop there. After the election, we have a job to do to communicate about the new Parliament, the new MEPs representing us in Europe, as well as the new Commission President and his or her programme and hearings for the new Commissioners. The communication plan runs through to the end of next year. As members can see, there is a lot going on and for those who want to follow our preparations for the European elections, we produce a monthly newsletter outlining the latest developments. The October edition will be on our website shortly.
I welcome our guest and thank him for his dissertation on the European elections. I hope that in the run-up to the elections, the general public will be informed of the importance of these elections in terms of the economic benefits accruing to this country and to Europe generally. It would be useful to compare income per capitain 1989 or 1990 for countries in the EU, countries in the European Free Trade Area and the United States with today's incomeper capitadata. Ireland is one of the top performers, despite the crash and everything that went with it. I hope that such data will be included in any information made available to the public and that it will be in readable form and readily accessible. I agree entirely with Mr. Temple-Smithson that there is nothing to beat a leaflet or poster with general information to galvanise voters.
There is a particular interest in encouraging younger voters to participate. I was disappointed to note the lack of interest among younger voters compared with the UK, for example, where the younger voters were the ones who took the interest in future membership of the European Union when the older voters did not. It seems to be the opposite in this country, which should not be the case, particularly when we have such large a young population compared with other countries. Does Mr. Temple-Smithson feel there is anything that could encourage the younger voter from the perspective of an investment in their future and the benefits apart from the participating in the democratic process generally but from deciding in this democratic process now for their benefit and for that of the country.
Finally, not all countries are voting on the same day. Why is that?
I thank Mr. Temple-Smithson for his presentation. Undoubtedly, there is still a disconnect between citizens and the European Parliament and work needs to be done on that. What is Mr. Temple-Smithson doing to increase reporting and coverage of European Parliament proceedings? For the first time in a long time, Irish people are aware of an MEP from outside Ireland, namely, Guy Verhofstadt. We can pronounce Mr. Verhofstadt's name now because he is so central to the Brexit negotiations in which Irish people have taken an interest. It is a pity that European Parliament elections here tend to be dominated by personalities, national issues and even local issues, which is probably to be expected to an extent since the local elections take place on the same day. Does the remit of the European Parliament liaison office extend to giving information on the large general themes of the day in Europe, the big questions facing the EU on areas such as immigration or the rise of illiberal tendencies in EU states and the rise of intolerance and decrease in respect for European liberal democratic values?
An issue which is tied in with that is that of groupings. Most Irish people are probably not familiar with the European Parliament groupings, which stand for different policies, visions and so on. I am interested in the office's line of demarkation. Can it tell the people of the big issues of the day or educate people? Everyone will have a certain amount of interest but can it try to give more information on the big issues confronting the Parliament?
I thank Mr. Temple-Smithson for his presentation. I am delighted that he is heading off on this route to bring Europe to the people on a county-by-country basis. It is no reflection on Mr. Temple-Smithson, but it is a pity we have not been doing that all along. Every day, we pass buildings or bridges with signage saying that it was funded through a partnership programme with the EU and we mostly ignore them now as we have become accustomed to them. It would be great to see a level of engagement that would bring the European project down to every street and house in every village in Ireland. In this regard, Mr. Temple-Smithson is moving in the right direction.
It is a pity the local and European elections take place on the same day as it may preclude talent from one or other jurisdiction from running. That is a national issue, however.
On the young vote, it greatly disturbed me that when a Bill introduced in the Seanad recently to extend the vote to 16 year olds for local, European and presidential elections was shot down. If young people aged 16 and upwards are brought into the electoral process, we have them for life. Let us hope this Government or the next will revisit the matter. It is of great importance that we engage people in the democratic process as early as possible and it would be great to see Europe take a lead in this. There are countries which already have the vote at 16 years and the world has not ended in any of them, nor were any lives lost. It broadens the democratic process.
The one difficulty I have always had with Europe is the Commission and our appointment of Commissioners. It is not something we can deal with through this process but I have always felt that the democratic imperative was missing there. In some cases, the Commissioner role is a nice job for a good old crony who has spent his or her life in Irish or British politics and a means of getting a good pension. That is not how it should be. We should send people who are selected by a democratic process, even if it meant something like the Senate election that takes place in this country. I am not denigrating any of the Commissioners who have represented Ireland in the past. They did their jobs well but it is an oversight.
I compliment Mr. Temple-Smithson on this document and look forward to a robust debate as we go through this process. I hope the document leads to a topical national conversation. I am saddened by the slide in electoral turnout. Anything that can be done to stall or reverse this trend would be very welcome. I cannot see Ireland ever adopting mandatory voting. However, it is a good lead-up to the European elections. It looks so good that I might even run myself.
There was one other question that I was asked to raise by a constituent regarding observation of European Parliament elections. Ireland has signed up to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, Copenhagen document of 1990. Some member states welcome both domestic and international observers. Is there any scope to encourage member states to open up their European Parliament elections to domestic and international observers? Has this issue been considered?
I have some questions regarding the forthcoming election. Are there particular concerns about hacking in the European Parliament elections? That could have a very damaging effect in future elections, if not this time perhaps. We have seen how fake tweets or similar issues can affect an election. It is something that should be discussed. This will be the first time that the UK will not have a European Parliament election at the same time as Ireland. Is Brexit likely to have an impact on the election here?
Mr. Temple-Smithson's independence is absolute, but how does he work with MEPs, candidates and potential candidates in elections? How does he strike a balance and ensure he keeps his independence intact? How do we get more people interested in European elections? I have my own ideas on that but I will keep them for another time in case I am asked to be director of elections for a European campaign. I do not propose to let other people know the secrets that I might have in my head so I will wait until somebody offers me that role. It is something I have done in council elections and other elections for family members.
When it comes to getting people interested in European elections, a great deal of work has to be done. This is because in the past there would definitely have been more excitement at a busy funeral than for some of the European elections. Certainly, they would have left a good deal to be desired in my humble opinion. We will see what the future will hold. A great deal of work can be done.
Reference was made to a rate of 52% in Ireland and how this is higher than elsewhere. However, it is still a poor show. People have worked hard in the past. People gave up a great deal so that we could vote, whether in local, national or European elections. People should really be willing to push the boat out and vote for whomever they wish - whether individuals or parties - regardless of their allegiances. That is well and good. My God, people should push the boat out and declare that they want to be part of it. They should outline the reason they want to be part of it is because they want to engage, have their say and place their trust in a person, whether a lady, a man or a party. That person or individual will be the one to represent them and their interests. Afterwards, they will be able to say that the person did what they wanted or did not do what they wanted and so they will vote for someone else on the next occasion. If a person stands on the sidelines and, come voting day for the European elections, simply either does not bother or decides not to vote, then it is an awful attitude. That is actually sad. I hope the rate will be higher than 52% in this election. We would want it to go a great deal higher.
If Mr. Temple-Smithson can do anything to push up the rate, I would very much welcome it. A great deal of this is down to the parties and the individual candidates. We have seen in recent times major parties standing back from elections and not fielding candidates. I have some ideas on that. I am of the view that it is abdicating responsibility in respect of an important role. In any event, that is a debate for another day. I am not being hard on any particular party - I am branding them all the same.
I am being completely independent about the matter. It is wrong for any group of people not to put a candidate in the field. It was different for the politicians of all persuasions long ago, when resources were limited and the tools at people's fingertips were not even a fraction of those that are available today. People went out and made the effort. They went out on bicycles to canvass. They held open rallies. People walked for miles and miles to listen to their chosen candidate or to someone from the party to which they were affiliated. Thousands of people in towns and villages came out and heard inspiring speeches. The people were inspired by the candidates. In those times, they used to fight over their politics. They would fight their corners and debate matters in every sense. It was great in a way because it showed that they were interested and committed. On polling day, they could not wait to vote. Regardless of whatever jobs needed to be done, they put on their best clothes and headed to polling stations because they wanted to vote for their people. They believed they had a great day's work done when they had voted. Regardless of whether the preferred person won, lost or whatever, they had engaged with the system. I am thinking back to a time when people were unable to jump into a motor car and drive to a polling station. They had to go across country in bad weather wearing poor clothing in order to vote. Yet, they did it and they were proud and glad. When we think about voting, we should think about those people and be more interested in our democracy.
That is enough of my ranting for today. Those are my feelings on the matter. I would really appreciate any work Mr. Temple-Smithson could do in order to help instil that into people.
I wish to acknowledge the generous gesture made by my colleague for excluding himself from possible membership of the European Commission in future. I presume that is on the basis of his lack of seniority and age at this stage.
I imagine his turn will come but, in fact, I disagree with him. I am strongly of the view that we need people of experience as Commissioners in Brussels. Recent events would point towards the use of people with experience in the pivotal roles they have been given. These are not jobs for first-timers. That is no reflection on first-time runners or anything like that. There comes a time when the people with the hard graft and experience are called upon. This is one of those times and I believe we should be grateful that some of them are in place.
I should point out that the busy funerals the Chairman is speaking of are those where everyone goes in to look at the corpse. Then, they come out to look at their neighbours and say, "God, he looked well, did he not?"
Mr. James Temple-Smithson:
I will not follow down that line, tempting though it may be. I will run through the points Deputies have made. It is absolutely the case that overall the benefit of EU membership to Ireland has been significant. Let us compare Ireland in 1973 with Ireland today. That is part of our day-to-day work and is absolutely what we intend to do in the campaign.
The question of younger voters is puzzling. When we ask younger people in surveys, they are always the most enthusiastic Europeans. They say they are pro-European and identify themselves in the group that is interested in and intent on voting. How do we then galvanise them to actually get to the ballot box? There are mechanical and structural reasons. They might be away at college or they might not understand the register. There might be some process issues. There is a job to do on that front and we work with the Union of Students in Ireland and the National Youth Council of Ireland on initiatives in this area. Certainly, one important part of this is making the case to them that their future is at stake. Young people in the UK have buyer's remorse, if that is the correct term, for the fact that they did not turn out and vote in the referendum and now they are set to face the consequences. It is a complicated problem but we have some ideas to pursue on that front.
Why do countries not vote on the same day? It is simply a matter of tradition. From time to time the idea has come up. I referred to the report resolution in the Parliament in February. If I remember rightly, an amendment was proposed that the poll should be on the same day everywhere but it was voted down. Every time this issue comes up the possibility is raised that it would be more coherent. Perhaps the moment will arrive and the politics will align so that it can happen. It would certainly make things more straightforward. However, we could have the strange situation of the polls closing, presumably if were to be on a Friday. Then, the local votes would be counted and there would be interest for people in the immediate aftermath. However, we could not start to count the EU Parliament ballots straight away. We could verify them but we could not start counting until polls close in the last country, which could be at 11 p.m. in Italy. Then, the count could go on until the middle of next week and so on. Certainly, there is an argument that it would make the case easier and that it would feel more like a European experience if everyone voted on the same day.
Mr. Verhofstadt is a rather media-friendly personality. When he came to Ireland last September, there was considerable interest in him and in the way he articulates things. He is a skilled political communicator. We are always trying to identify other MEPs who have something to say. Ms Danuta Maria Huebner is the chairperson of the EU Parliament Committee on Constitutional Affairs. She visited some weeks ago. There was a reasonable amount of media interest in her but not the same as for Mr. Verhofstadt. Tomorrow morning, the Taoiseach will meet the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Tajani, and we will be promoting that and what Mr. Tajani has to say after that meeting. We do try.
It is important to help promote that the whole of the European Parliament is relevant to people in Ireland and we promote not only Irish MEPs but MEPs from other countries. Our remit extends to the big issues of the day. We take account of the Eurobarometer, which we have discussed, identify issues of concern to the population in general, the issues people have said are priorities and we communicate what the European Parliament has done in those areas. There is a saying that eaten bread is soon forgotten. It is true that what we are saying is what has happened in the past and perhaps the rest interest is in what will happen in the future.
To move on to the point the Chairman made, let me be clear, we are the supporting cast in this. The actors are the politicians. We can set the stage but it is for them to articulate what they think should happen on those big issues. We are certainly in the market to provide information about decisions the European Parliament has taken on migration or, as was mentioned, the rise of illiberal democracy and what the EU has done in respect of Hungary and Poland.
I have not heard the OSCE mentioned regarding European elections. I would have to look into that and come back to the member on that. I am not familiar with that but I will make a note of it.
The issue of a combination of elections being held on the one day is a difficult one. It slices both ways. On the one hand, having local elections on the same day as the European elections promotes turnout but it makes the debate harder to get across because we are competing with the local elections. The same applies to the holding of a referendum on the same day. If a referendum was to be held on lowering the voting age to 16 on the same day as the European elections, that might help us garner interest among younger voters but that is not likely to happen. Lowering the voting age to 16 is not an issue for us. It is not our remit. We do a great deal of youth engagement work and when we talk to people in that age bracket and ask them what are issues they care about, that is always one of the top two or three issues 16 to 19 year olds raise. That is just a passing observation.
On the issue of the way Commissioners are appointed, the Parliament would point to two factors. There has been much more interest in the nomination process on the past two occasions. The European Parliament had added democratisation to that process through the hearings we have had. I have been around for a long time and 12 years ago there was little evidence of interest in those hearings whereas now there is a great deal of interest. I anticipate there would be interest in the hearing for whoever is nominated to be the Irish Commissioner. We actively promote that. For example, we pay to promote the hearing live online to make that as accessible as possible to people. There is certainly much more interest in the Commissioner from one's country and if there is some controversy there would be more interest in that. The person nominated does not only have to get through the appointment, he or she has to be ratified by the European Parliament. Also, we would argue that the "Spitz" process in terms of the lead candidate process is an important democratising element. In the past the European Council nominated the President of the Commission after a closed meeting but with this process these people are making their case for their vision of the future of Europe months beforehand and that is a much more open process.
On the Chairman's comments, we are acutely aware of the whole issue of hacking, fake news and nefarious interference in elections issue. In areas where there is a legislative solution, that is for a matter for the Commission to act. A conference was held in Brussels yesterday or the day before at which Commissioner King specifically proposed some actions and other Commissioners have proposed specific steps that need to be taken before the European elections. There is an awareness there will be interest in some quarters in trying to manipulate the European elections. We are certainly taking steps in the European Parliament to engage with social media or firms and so on. One of the measures we can take against fake news is to promote awareness of the phenomenon. We held an event in June on that issue, in which there was a great deal of interest and at which a number of Deputies and Senators spoke.
On Brexit, the fact that it will happen on 29 March next year just before the European elections can only increase interest in the European elections. It may help to demonstrate and underline even more the importance of membership of the Union. If nothing else, Brexit, as the Eurobarometer today shows, has underlined to people what the benefits of EU membership are and what they stand to lose if their country is no longer a member of it.
Regarding candidates and potential candidates for the European elections and MEPs, the last session will end Easter week next year. We will deal with members in their routine work until the end of that session which will be Holy Thursday. After that they become candidates. We provide information for all candidates. We can provide information about what happened in a certain vote, what was achieved in this or that area, but we would not provide the support we provide to MEPs until after the elections. That would be for former MEPs standing again or for new candidates. We treat everybody the same in terms of providing the same level of information. Perhaps I could buy the Chairman a cup of tea and pick his brains on ideas for how we might galvanise people in terms of these elections.
I thank Mr. Temple-Smithson for his engagement with us today. Considering the importance of the European elections, we appreciate he took the time out to be here with us. It was a useful engagement.
I propose we suspend briefly and reconvene in private session.