Thursday, 11 December 2003
Address by Ms Avril Doyle, MEP.
On behalf of Seanad Éireann I welcome Ms Avril Doyle, MEP, to the House. Ms Doyle was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 to represent the constituency of Leinster. She has extensive political experience. She entered local politics in June 1974 and became a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1982. She is a familiar figure to the Members of Seanad Éireann, having been elected on the agricultural panel in 1989 and in 1997.
During her term as a Member of Dáil Éireann she was Minister of State at the Department of Finance, with responsibility for the Office of Public Works and the environment from 1986 to 1987. She was Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance and Transport, Energy and Communications from 1994 to 1997. She has also been a very formidable and effective shadow spokesperson on agriculture, the marine and the environment. She is an eloquent and well-briefed speaker and we look forward to hearing her address the House. I believe Ms Doyle always fancied being in the Minister's chair in Seanad Éireann.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kind words and gracious welcome. I wish to inform the Leas-Chathaoirleach that I was in this chair as Minister of State on many occasions. Those Members who have served as Ministers of State will be aware of the "rent a Minister syndrome" as I termed it. When the Cabinet Minister was not available, some unsuspecting Minister of State would be grabbed, a brief thrust in his or her hand and he or she would be sent to the Seanad with orders to sort them out.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I rather irreverently coined the phrase "rent a Minister syndrome". At least I insisted the Minister of State should be paired off for votes when we spoke in the Seanad and that has helped. Many older colleagues will remember the time when the Seanad was forced to suspend every time there was a division in the Dáil.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I changed that when I was a Minister of State because I thought it rather disrespectful to this esteemed Chamber.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I am delighted to be back and I thank the Cathaoirleach for the invitation to address the House. I recognise and accept that I am not much of a novelty in this House; it is little over a year since I departed this hallowed Chamber. I always enjoyed my time in the Seanad and I always enjoyed the debate in Seanad Éireann. I acknowledge that Dáil Éireann is the seat of power but in terms of quality of debate or debating specific policy issues or parsing, analysing and teasing out legislation, this House wins hands down in terms of the work done. I say that with a little bit of experience behind me.
I have been a Member of the European Parliament since 1999 in the EPP group, which is the largest single political grouping in Europe. The group has approximately 230 members although this number fluctuates occasionally as members come and go. In a Parliament of 624 members, a by-election or a changing of personnel is not unusual. Four or five changes occur every month. Many MEPs in continental Europe are called back to national parliaments. The list system means that an election is not required for them to be recalled. They are brought back at the whims of various political masters and there is a constant turnover in the number of seats in all the political groups. It is more obvious in the larger groups.
The four Fine Gael MEPs and Rosemary Scallon are members of the EPP group. For my sins, I am leader of the Irish delegation in the EPP group in the European Parliament. I am therefore involved in another layer of meetings and official processes. It was a very steep learning curve because I knew very little about Europe. I barely knew what EPP-ED meant and how it related to the other parties in the Parliament. After four and a half years, I am now familiar with the process. It takes at least a year to get one's feet under the table and to understand how such a significant project, the European project, can work democratically.
Draft directives and proposals from the College of Commissioners go to the relevant committee for first reading. They are debated and amended or rejected there and sent on to the full plenary session for the vote. They are first examined by the political group to determine what will be the political stance. It is similar to the Whip system in the political parties in the Houses of the Oireachtas. My group does not have a very strict Whip system but each political group takes a position before the first reading in plenary session. Following a plenary vote, a proposal is sent to the Council of Ministers. Where there is co-decision on legislation, the Parliament has equal say with the relevant Council of Ministers on the outcome. Where there is no co-decision, the Parliament is still consulted and the measure is still debated at committee. It can be amended and rejected but without co-decision, the Council of Ministers has the complete say on the final shape of the legislation or directive.
Agriculture has virtually no co-decision mechanism and this is a significant lack. I am a substitute member of the agriculture committee, together with my colleague, Mr. Liam Hyland, MEP, who is also a substitute member. I suppose it makes its own statement that for the first time in years there is no Irish full member of the agriculture committee.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
Mr. Liam Hyland and I are substitute members. We work like full members and we are always present when critical issues are being discussed. We take note of issues of particular interest to Ireland. We may not follow the debates on olive oil, cotton and tobacco and other such products, but when it comes to agricultural issues pertaining to the northern hemisphere, we are both extremely active. As rapporteur, I have had many reports from the committee.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I am a member of the environment, public health and consumer affairs committee and this is my main committee. Other MEPs may have explained this process to the House.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
Every MEP, when elected, must choose membership of a number one and a number two committee. All the work of the MEP is then honed through those committees. One only works on the tranche of legislation that comes to that committee from the Commission. One can discuss it with one's political group and when discussing the business of other committees in plenary session, but the working week comprises one's specific committee duties. Thus, the work is very much committee oriented and from that one gathers a general body of expertise in particular areas. I have been involved in many environmental issues, including the EU's framework water directive. I batted virtually single-handed to obtain the derogation for Ireland on domestic water rates. It is very hard to get our European colleagues to understand why nobody pays for domestic water supplies in Ireland. It is difficult to defend on environmental grounds or on the basis of any other sustainable argument one may wish to make. I had to explain what a political issue it is for us here; how Dáil seats have been won and lost over water rates and how Governments have come and gone on that basis alone.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
Political considerations have to be weighed up with all the other arguments and in the long term it will be hard to sustain the defence of our position. At the time the framework water directive was going through the European Parliament, it was still a big political issue for Ireland but that will lessen in time and there will be a greater understanding that there is no such thing as a free lunch. There will be an acceptance that service charges generally comprise a payment for services, as distinct from taxation contributions to the central Exchequer to run the country. I know there are difficulties with refuse collection charges and various other issues – although not in my constituency, I might say – which form part of the same debate.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
My work is done through the European Parliament's environment, public health and consumer affairs committee. My group, the EPP, which is the largest in the Parliament, has 22 members on that committee. The seats on each committee are filled according to the d'Hondt system devised by a Belgian mathematician. The system ensures that relative to the number of seats, or votes in some cases, one gets one's share on each committee. The number of committee seats is very carefully worked out and offered on the d'Hondt system, including for delegations and trips abroad. My group gets most of the seats as it is the largest, while the Socialist group is the second largest, followed by the Liberals. There are six political groupings and one technical group in the European Parliament.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
Approximately 60, of which the EPP has 22. Mr. Jim Fitzsimons and Patricia McKenna are also on it. That committee is the most active in terms of the number of hours it sits and the amount of legislation with which it deals. The committee services all the proposals from DG5 under Commissioner David Byrne. In the last four years, he has proposed 90 legislative proposals concerning food, so I have had much interaction with him. There is an interesting working dynamic because, while a Fianna Fáil-PD Government represents the majority result in the last general election, in the European Parliament we have no government or opposition, just the different groups. I am member of the largest political group. Therefore, if the Government, departmental officials or the permanent representatives want to achieve something of particular Irish interest, they must have the EPP group on board in order to have the critical mass of votes on plenary stage. As leader of the Irish delegation in the EPP group, I do a lot of tick-tacking with Government officials and the permanent representatives who represent different Departments. There is, therefore, an interesting Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael dynamic that is not obvious initially.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
The Union for Europe of the Nations group is fully briefed as are its colleagues, but even so the UEN only has 22 votes to bring to the table. If I can persuade my colleagues, however, in theory I can bring 232 votes, although nobody ever brings their entire group along and, in any case, there is never a full attendance. The average plenary attendance is 525 out of a total of 624, due to absences through illness and for other reasons.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I would rather term it an interesting political dynamic. It actually works quite well because as a Member of the European Parliament one togs out in the Irish jersey. Much as I would like to pretend otherwise, none of my European colleagues can really understand the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I have tried to explain it and I am fairly vigorous in my efforts. It is difficult, however, to try to explain how we organise our political system to European politicians who have a right-left divide in their politics. I am sure some Senators have experienced that over the years.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I am interested in Seán Lemass, who was against neutrality. He is rather an interesting person if one investigates what he said on the record.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I will provide a practical example of how the dynamic works between the permanent representatives, the officials and the Government in order to get things done in Europe by co-decision. We have had a huge battle over the veterinary medicines directive, which is part of a pharmaceutical package together with the human medicines directive and regulation on the EU Medicines Evaluation Agency, which is located in London and maintains law and order in this area. I am sorry to say that, yesterday, at COREPER, the Council of Permanent Representatives, we lost our Irish position on veterinary medicines. There will be a vote next Wednesday in Strasbourg but we will not have any success with it.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
At European Council level, the Minister for Health and Children is leading this package because human medicines will be the lead directive. Notwithstanding the gallant efforts of our permanent representatives out there and the officials in the Department of Agriculture and Food here, we had very little support to continue with our veterinary regime in this country, which has been superb. The British, who basically have the same regime, supported us. The Dutch and Portuguese said they would support us at the Council of Ministers but did not speak up, while the Swedes traded our support on an environment amendment for backing us on the issue of prescription-only medicines. From 2006 onwards, all veterinary medicines in Ireland will need a prescription. It is a serious animal welfare issue because a ewe would not be worth the cost of calling out a vet plus the prescription and veterinary medicines involved. Therefore, because they cannot afford to do otherwise, farmers will leave such matters until the last minute or will destroy the sick animal themselves since it would not be worth the cost of the treatment involved. There are all sorts of other issues, including iodine for the navel and teat dips, which are simple, routine farm medicines as distinct from antibiotics and steroids which are only available on prescription and will remain so. There is no argument about the latter type of drugs but the routine animal husbandry we all use will have to be obtained on prescription from 2006.
The Department of Agriculture and Food did its best, battling valiantly on this issue in which I was very much involved, but it will now have to change our veterinary culture. Domestic law will have to be changed in this area. We will have to do what the French have done, even though they fought a hard battle against this change. The French have a system whereby the vet makes an annual call and provides a script to farmers who can then do what they like for the year. I do not understand how that can be in the best interests of the food chain, compared to our strictly regulated position whereby a veterinary prescription is only given on case by case basis following a clinical diagnosis. While that procedure should continue, it would effectively bankrupt our farmers. Therefore, we will have to change to the much looser continental system, which is not in the interests of veterinary medicine. To be honest, it is not in the interest of our vets and I doubt they will be pleased with it. The problem will then arise that if the vet gives a prescription and medicines are only available on prescription, does the vet have the monopoly on the supply of the drugs. The view of the pharmacists and the co-operatives, which are now involved in this area, will be that in practice, if not in theory, we are handing over a monopoly on the supply of veterinary medicines to the veterinary practitioners, all of whom have shops. In Denmark, a veterinary practitioner who gives a veterinary prescription is now allowed to have a retail outlet as part of his practice. We are opening up a whole new, difficult cultural area, therefore, and that is not in the best interests of our excellent veterinary practices.
The permanent representative and the Department of Agriculture and Food officials laboured for a year and a half to get the Irish-British position accepted, even by way of derogation. I had long chats with the permanent representative, going back and forth, until very late last night and I regret to say that only yesterday, we lost the battle at COREPER and in the EPP group, which is my group. Mr. Philip Whitehead, who was battling to preserve the Irish-British argument, lost the battle in the Socialist Group. There is a compromise amendment which we reckon will have the numbers to get through plenary next week.
Even though my amendment of two weeks ago on the environment committee was supported by 41 votes for, one against and only six abstentions – that was all of the 60 who were present on that occasion – there was an overwhelming majority to preserve the Irish-British position on prescription only medicines. That issue will go to a vote next week but if the two biggest groups are whipped into voting for this compromise, which does not accept it, and that compromise is accepted, everything below it will fall. It appears that my amendment, which was overwhelmingly supported in the environment, public health and consumer affairs committee, will fall next week.
One might ask why veterinary medicines are dealt with in the environment committee. It is considered a public health-consumer affairs matter, a food chain issue. All the animal disease issues – foot and mouth disease, BSE, veterinary medicines, hormones – are dealt with by the environment committee, not by the committee on agriculture in Europe, which is strange. That is why the agricultural committee has diminished in power, so to speak. Some of the critical issues are decided by the environment committee and it is perhaps the reason, to end where I began, there are no longer any full members who are Irish on the committee on agriculture.
Perhaps I have said enough and I should answer questions. I have been involved in a whole range of other issues. I will mention briefly the legislation, although I will not explain it. I mentioned the water framework directive, but there is also the waste electronic and electrical equipment directive, which is concerned with what happens to our televisions, refrigerators and toasters. The food supplements directive covers the health food area. There is a chemicals policy coming down the track. I have been very involved in the traditional herbal medicines directive. The emissions trading directive will have a major economic impact here and we have hardly woken up to what is going on in that area. I am involved also in the official feed and food controls directive, fisheries in the Irish Box, the Common Agricultural Policy and the consumer credit directive.
On the packaging waste directive, I have been very involved in trying to get Ireland a derogation, along with Spain, Portugal and Greece, to 2010 if not 2011 before we have to comply with the directive. That will have a major impact because we do not have the network or the infrastructure to meet the waste recycling rates met by the rest of Europe. We have to be practical in what we sign up to but if we sign up under environmental and waste legislation, this country has to be fit to deliver. However, we should not sign up just for the sake of a quiet life in Europe. We should sign when we can commit and deliver rather than have 121 different items of European legislation that we have not transposed into Irish law and on which we will be hauled before the European courts. That is not the best way to behave.
I am a member of the SME union, that is the small and medium enterprises union. In fact, I am one of the few women vice-presidents of it. That is the union or the discussion group which keeps an eye on small and medium size enterprises, the largest employers in all our countries, to ensure that the regulations we make do not do major damage when we roll them out. A number of problems have arisen in that particular area. I am the only Irish member of the SME union.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
And 13 to be. That is a critical committee which is not covered by an Irish MEP and it has caused problems because sometimes an issue has got as far as plenary before we twig that we should have been in there and not let it go as far as it did. With co-decision, if the committee has already signed up, it can be very hard to change it in plenary. Co-decision is critical to understand and it is the one area to which perhaps our permanent representative does not give enough credence. When we send our best officials to Brussels to brief the Ministers in all the different Councils of Ministers, they give a wonderful service. They even sit in on meetings if the Minister cannot attend. Now that 80% of the legislation in the European Parliament is co-decided by the Parliament and the Council of Ministers—
Ms Doyle, MEP:
Some 80% of legislation is now subject to co-decision. The permanent representative should be geared towards briefing the Irish MEPs to get the Irish position across and table the amendments before the committee concerned nails down the specifics. It goes to Council after committee and if the permanent representative was in the habit of advising the Council or the Minister, situations could be avoided where positions are taken at the committee stage that are very difficult to unravel. Ministers have been told, "Your MEPs never said that at committee, in fact, they voted unanimously for X and you now want Y", but that was because under the current co-decision ethos, we are not geared towards briefing the MEPs in the same way as other member states. We are more geared towards serving our Ministers. Successive Governments have done it that way but we need to keep our MEPs up to speed on the Irish position so that we are aware of a problem coming down the track or an issue that is of vital national interest to us.
Thank you, Acting Chairman. As my colleagues will tell me, and as Senator Walsh is very much aware, it was always a formidable task to follow the then Senator, and prior to that Minister, Doyle in this House. One had to be on one's toes and nothing has changed in that regard.
The last time Ms Doyle and myself passed each other at Dublin Airport, she had broken her leg and some wit said that Ms Doyle, in common with all her colleagues in the European Parliament, had broken her leg for Ireland. I am not sure if it is true but it was a good story and, in a sense, it conveys the immense amount of work MEPs get through, which she conveyed also in her contribution.
It is timely that Ms Doyle is here. I know I am breaking procedures in referring to those who are in the Visitors Gallery but those young people who are here today are our future. I am sure part of the reason they are here is because they are doing what is called the civil, social and political project. If they nod in agreement I am right and if they do not, I am not right.
They are, but the fact that they are here, and I realise it is only for a short time, means they are involved in dealing with pan-European issue. They are our future and in the context of what Ms Doyle said, I hope those young people, some of whom, statistically, will sit as Members in this House or the other House at some time in the future, will address the issues she has brought up about old attitudes. She talked about the permanent representatives and the way they brief Ministers. That appears to be part of our political culture, that the Executive rules and the Dáil and Seanad disposes.
The late John Healy, a good Mayo man, referred to it at one time as the permanent Government. Perhaps Ms Doyle might have a view on whether the current talk of reform in both Houses might somehow be relevant to what she is doing in Europe. She might have a view to express on the way the European experience can be brought more into the mainstream here.
Without blowing my own trumpet, as our distinguished Leader, Senator O'Rourke, will be aware, I and others made a submission on this issue. In the context of the initiatives on accountability, it recommended that the relevant Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs should come to the House under a Second Stage procedure to allow the House to debate directives before they go to committee. Once Committee Stage has been completed, they should come before the House again before being returned to the European Parliament. I raise this matter because Ms Doyle referred to the vital area of co-decision. Senator O'Rourke, who has immense experience in Europe on this issue, acknowledges that matters are changing and have moved on to the extent that 80% of legislation is now subject to the co-decision procedure.
She stated unequivocally that this would happen. Wherefore is this House and the other House, given that this deal has been done and dusted in Europe with the decision taken by a committee followed by the co-decision procedure? Our Ministers are aware of this initiative which I presume will now take the form of a directive to be implemented in our law. Ms Doyle does not have to address the issue now.
Perhaps she will take us through the co-decision procedure, its legislative impact and its relationship to the so-called powers of the Houses because it raises a fundamental issue about the future political direction of the European Union. In terms of the legislative process, the European Parliament is obviously far ahead of the Oireachtas, which appears to be stuck in a time warp. Does Ms Doyle have a view on this?
Our young friends have now left the Chamber. Irrespective of the perception of the lifestyle of MEPs the media tend to convey to the general public, it appears to be a difficult one. MEPs are portrayed as constantly on junkets, spending most of their time banging the bells – incidentally, the name of the favourite pub of the former Deputy, John Healy, which is now gone – in Strasbourg and Brussels and sitting around in little more than a talking shop, namely, the European Parliament, the rest of the time. Ms Doyle will agree that this is a perception and, moreover, that it is more difficult for her, her colleagues and Members from all sides of this House involved in the political process to motivate the general public to go out and vote for MEPs in a European election when one is met with the general response that the European Parliament is not important and the real action takes place in the Dáil. Does she agree that the real legislative action is now in Strasbourg and Brussels and that it is of vital national importance that the electorate should be aware of this and vote accordingly?
As I stated with regard to Mr. Ó Neachtáin earlier – I am making a political point – I have no doubt Ms Doyle will be successful in the next elections due to the immense work she is doing on behalf of her constituents and the country and I wish her well. All our MEPs seeking re-election deserve a vote of confidence from the electorate to continue the work they are doing. With so many of them retiring, there will be many new faces in the next Parliament.
Will Ms Doyle explain the relationship between the European Parliament and its committees? For example, how was the veterinary directive she mentioned initiated? I presume directives are proposed by the Commission and then go before the committees. Given the increasing power of the committees, is legislation a done deal by the time it goes before a plenary session of the Parliament? Has the work already been done on the margins and the alliances formed?
Does Ms Doyle agree with my view, based on limited experience, that food standards in other parts of Europe fall far short of what one has come to demand and expect here? I am referring to the public manifestation of food standards, for example, in restaurants and bars. We appear to have a strict regime in place and we constantly hear of small, family run food processors attracting the ire of the Commission for not adhering to particular food standards. Is this an unfair stereotype? I have in mind France as opposed to Germany or elsewhere. Pubs and restaurants in France seem to have a lower standard of hygiene and food than here. Is this because we are such good Europeans or am I being unfair to the French?
Yes, that is the drift of my question but I am being diplomatic. Is there a separate style of politics in Europe, a political way of doing things, which is somewhat foreign to us due to our peripheral nature and the culture we described earlier? Should we start adapting our political processes to be more specific?
Groups operate in the European Parliament, across which alliances are constantly being formed. With the accession countries soon to come on board, is Ireland well positioned to develop alliances with what the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, referred to as like-minded countries? Although he used this term in the context of the constitutional treaty, will there be like-minded countries when representatives of the accession states enter the European Parliament or will they adopt a similar position to the Spaniards who, as Ms Doyle outlined, went local on one issue and separated from their groups to protect local interests? Does she envisage this process continuing? Does Tip O'Neill's point that all politics are local apply, even within the current alliances and despite the structures and architecture of the European Union?
Moral issues tend to play a prominent role here. If we are not having a debate on abortion, we are debating divorce and having addressed that issue, we now have stem cell research. Do moral issues present a difficulty for our MEPs? Ms Doyle stated earlier that she wears the green jersey. Without singling out an individual, some of our MEPs perhaps wear a different jersey on occasions, which is the nature of politics and not unique to Ireland. Are we fighting a rearguard action on moral issues? Can Ms Doyle state with any degree of certainty that, notwithstanding the acknowledgement of Ireland's constitutional positions on these issues, circumstances could arise in which we will be seen to be out of kilter with the rest of Europe?
The specific reason for raising this is that with no consensus on the vote on funding for human stem cell research, we found ourselves in one group of countries, while another group which did not share our position won the day. Does this or moral issues in general have any implications for us? I accept this is a complex issue and do not expect Ms Doyle to—
Should we introduce a list system for elections? Ms Doyle pointed out that some of the best people are drawn back to their home countries. Is it correct to assume this is a direct result of the list system and would not happen here because of the peculiarities of our system?
This leads, on the one hand, to the creation of a vacuum in the Parliament but also a continuum in that the country to which a person returns can then replace him or her with someone equally as good.
I thank Ms Doyle for coming before us. As she stated, these issues are so complex that we do not have sufficient time to address them all. I have raised only a few pointers.
I welcome Deputy Doyle to the House. It is helpful to have her title clarified. During Ms Doyle's speech she referred to togging out in the Irish jersey. This is an interesting question, but we do not have time to dwell fully on it. Some members who go to Brussels are accused of going native; others are accused of simply peddling an Irish line. What is the balance? Do we send people to represent our constituencies in Europe or to present the views of Europe to us? How does it work best? There is a fine line between the two. I will not mention names, but there have been one or two MEPs through the years who worked on the basis that what was good for Europe was good for Ireland, while others take the opposite view, always pushing the Irish argument. What are Ms Doyle's views on that point?
Ms Doyle mentioned the veterinary directive, on which I will not dwell. On the broader issue of agriculture, a subject to which Ms Doyle is well attuned, I asked the Leader yesterday morning if the Seanad could engage in a broad series of debates on the future of agriculture and she responded favourably to my suggestion. At European level there are various talks, packages and plans, such as the Fischler proposals. What is the current state of European thinking on the future of Irish agriculture? Is it seen as a sector which will continue to employ fewer and fewer people? Is there a management issue? Is there an idea that European agriculture can continue to employ tens of thousands of people across the Continent? This is a particularly appropriate question in the context of the accession of the new member states, which have a strong agricultural base. Finally, what does Ms Doyle think of the EU constitution, the treaty and the current intervention by Mr. Prodi?
I thank Ms Doyle for attending. I have always admired her style, and I am not talking about clothes, although that is part of it, but her demeanour. I do not think any of our visitors have explained so vividly the background to the committee system. Through this series of discussions we have obtained a much better understanding of how the European Parliament works. I did not know the committee system was so vitally important. The 60 member environment and consumer affairs committee, of which Ms Doyle is the chairman – I congratulate her on her appointment – is of great importance. To take up Senator Mooney's point, if people take a position on an item and win the vote, the plenary session is only procedure. The vote is taken then.
I love everything about the European project, but the thing that puts me off being a member is the lifestyle – gathering at airports at the crack of dawn, waking up in different hotel bedrooms and going to different meetings, all the while keeping up with one's constituents. Ms Doyle is part of our constituency; I found traces of her all over Kilbeggan. For some reason she is particularly strong there. Senator Moylan will have something else to say about his area. In the last election I spoke to a group with which Ms Doyle was in touch and it praised her highly.
No, I do not want to be. I have fought against that under several Taoisigh and I have no wish to do it.
I thank Ms Doyle for the vividness of the knowledge she has given us about the committee system, although it was sketchy because of time restraints. I understand that because of COREPER, the officials, Members and Ministers must all work very hard. I have spoken about this in the House before. From my knowledge, COREPER means that one is handed one's brief on the aeroplane to Brussels and told this is the position to take. What if one does not want to take that position? I do not agree with it. I was regarded as a general nuisance because I mentioned opinions of my own rather than sticking to those in my brief. If I said I did not like something, I was told it was all agreed at COREPER. In my mind I built COREPER up as a mysterious, exotic group of people who met in a dark cave at night and came to conclusions, which they drummed into compliant Ministers and then those who were not so compliant – those who must be worked on, such as me and some others. However, those in Brussels do wonderful work. The permanent representatives are at endless meetings day and night. I thank Ms Doyle for her vividness and her willingness to come to the House, but also for her service to the country, which she has given in many guises.
Senator Mooney referred to the subject of one of my questions. As one who is in the restaurant business, we have higher standards here than exist in other countries, such as Spain. I am worried about what Ms Doyle said about the veterinary directive, which will have serious consequences for us. Those in the equestrian world have raised serious concerns about it. In remote parts of the country, if a prescription is required, the vet might be 30 or 40 miles away. What will happen then? Could we end up with more than one standard, as happens in the area of food hygiene, with a higher standard in this country than in other European countries for veterinary matters? I am worried about having two standards as a result of the veterinary directive.
I apologise for missing Ms Doyle's speech; I was about her father's business at the Forum on Europe. I welcome Ms Doyle to the Seanad. It is invaluable that she and her colleagues come to the Seanad to share their experiences. We all find it very helpful. I congratulate her on the way she represents her constituents and Ireland in Europe. As chairman of the Forum on Europe, I find it fascinating how people manage with a one-minute speaking slot in the European Parliament. It does not seem to have rubbed off on some of Ms Doyle's colleagues who came here.
How can we engage young people with the idea and workings of Europe? How do the MEPs manage it? Do they crank up the machine at every election or is it a continuing process? Can they share with constituency or party colleagues in clinics and so on?
I welcome Ms Doyle to the House. She raised some important points, including the matter of the veterinary medicines directive. In the past we had major problems with the wildlife directive, which came through in a similar fashion, unannounced until it was already the law. I am aware this directive is in the pipeline. Ms Doyle briefly mentioned the possibility of an annual veterinary certificate for farmers. Can this be done? If so, it is the only way to go. Farmers who have always used certain products to treat maladies, such as blackleg, will no longer be able to use them. That has major implications for our farmers.
The other point she mentioned was a closed shop from the veterinary side. Many of those employed in veterinary medicine, who sell what they are entitled to sell, are now in trouble. The co-operatives are in trouble as they will be unable to sell those medicines. As legislators we must do something about this. Ms Doyle is MEP for my constituency of Laoighis-Offaly, part of which is not classified as severely handicapped. Part of the constituency qualified for inclusion in the BMW region as it is classified disadvantaged. I urge Ms Doyle to do whatever she can to ensure that the rest of Laoighis-Offaly is included in the BMW region.
Having listened to MEPs speak about the raft of legislation with which they have to deal, I suggest more use be made of the Committee of the Regions. Many of those directives could be promoted by the committee because its members are also members of local authorities who have interaction with regional authorities and county councils. In that way, we would be more up to speed on what is happening. The veterinary medicines directive has been foisted on us and will cause serious problems. I thanks Ms Doyle for an outstanding presentation.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
I will do my best to reply but I will not be able to deal with all the issues raised. Issues concerning the annual veterinary certificate and co-operatives were raised. What was decided at COREPER yesterday – it has another meeting today – will be voted on next week in the plenary session in Strasbourg. Effectively, this means British and Irish domestic law in this area will be changed. The best guess as to what we will do will be something similar to what is done in France, where an annual script or a six-months script for veterinary medicines is given to farmers for a range of medicines that are now non-prescription, such as teat dips, iodine, parasiticides, anthelmintics and so on. Antibiotics and steroids will continue to be issued on the basis of clinical diagnosis per prescription because of the risk to the food chain. General animal husbandry farm medicines would have to be issued on an annual or six month script. Members need to speak with the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, about this to ascertain how he will accommodate Ireland to stay within the terms of this veterinary medicines directive. We have a few years to sort ourselves out. There is a gap between the time a directive is passed in Europe and transposed into Irish law. It is only today that the Department of Agriculture and Food is wondering how it will accommodate the Irish farmer, the co-operative, the pharmacist, the veterinary practitioner and, above all, protect the food chain in what is being demanded to square that circle.
Ms Doyle, MEP:
What we sought posed no risk to the food chain. Residue tests, while they do not reveal high levels of residue, show that the highest level of residue comes from antibiotics which are already on prescription. To put everything on prescription will not guarantee any greater safety to the food chain. The period between administering the drug and slaughter and observing the correct withdrawal period, or MRL, is what safeguards the food. Whether one has a prescription will not guarantee that the farmer will be any better in obeying the withdrawal period. Generally farmers are excellent in this area and most drugs are out of the blood stream in three to four weeks so it is not an issue. The argument will be made that this is a food chain issue and that we had to do this. It has nothing to do with the food chain. It is not a harmonisation or a Single Market issue, which is the other argument that will be made, because there is no definition of a "veterinary medicine" or a "veterinary prescription" in the directive. A veterinary prescription is treated differently in every country in Europe as is veterinary medicine.
Some countries have farm medicines which will escape this directive but we do not divide our medicines between farm medicines and veterinary medicines. A package of choices will have to be made and domestic legislation will have to be changed. Perhaps in a few months time when this issue settles down and the Department officials have had to time to think it out, there could be an interesting debate with the Minister to tease out the implications. The co-operatives will let Members know all about it. There has been a public debate – it is one issue on which I would gently chide Members – in the Irish Farmers Journal, the farming supplement of the Irish Independent, The Examiner and other newspapers, on the comings and goings of the veterinary medicines directive for well over a year. No later than last week I read about this in the Irish Farmers Journal. Until it hits the ground, it does not become a politically sexy issue. People do not wake up and see the implications in this case. Some of us have been battling very hard, regrettably in vain. We did not have the support around the Council table as reflected by the COREPER people, who reflect how their Ministers will vote. Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, the UK and Ireland supported it but the other countries did not. The Italians did not support it because it was their Presidency and it is a huge coup for the pharmaceutical package, two directives and a regulation, to go through under the Italian Presidency.
Before lunch I spoke with a Senator about the list system. I do not agree with list systems for the Irish situation as a general statement. We have an intimacy with our electorate and we have small geographic constituencies in which we give a personal coalface service. If there were ever to be a list system in Ireland – Ireland is the only country in Europe that does not have a list system for the European elections – even with an extended Europe of 25 members, my view would stand up. There are different list systems but I do not have time to explain them.
If I am elected to go to Europe to represent my constituents in Leinster or Leinster East – I call it Ireland East – I should be in Brussels from Monday to Thursday. I am elected to be there and to work on my legislation, and to watch for what is in the best interests of the Single Market and the common European project. I must also recognise where there is a vital national interest requiring Ireland's case to be protected in a certain amendment or under a certain piece of legislation. In 95% of the legislation we go with Europe or with our political group but, on occasion, there are issues that are of such interest to Ireland that we have to stand against our political group and take a different stance. There is the freedom to do that. There is a balance between going native and togging out for Ireland. It is a judgment call that one trusts one's MEPs to make at the time, a balance between what one's political group wants, what the Department wants at home or what a lobby group in one's constituency is calling for. One has to get the core right.
On the issue of food standards and the law, there is a new European food safety authority. A significant amount of legislation is being spawned by that authority. I cannot agree that the standards in France and Spain are better or worse than in Ireland. Some of the best food in the world is in Brussels and on the European continent. One can go into any restaurant in any country occasionally and the hygiene standards will be well below par. A new food and feed control directive is coming down the track – I was the rapporteur for the agricultural committee – which will make common legal standards of inspection on food and feed control, literally from the farmer to the plate in the restaurant. At present there are different levels of enforcement. The law is the same but some countries are more rigorous in enforcing it in particular areas. That is the reason it may appear there are different standards.
The issue of reform was raised. It would be very interesting to invite Commissioner Fischler to address the House. Many questions were asked on the status of the mid-term review and the thinking on agriculture. The thinking on agriculture is that it is driven by the consumer and food production and no longer driven by the farmer and agricultural production. In Ireland we still look a little more at the farmer's perspective and gear towards the farmer rather than the consumer. Certainly, in Italy, Spain and the UK, this is driven entirely by consumer demand. In France, they are more like us, and it is driven by the farmer. There is a change in emphasis in all countries towards consumer demand. That is why we look at the issue from a food safety point of view and work from the plate back to the plough. The perspective has changed.
Senator Maurice Hayes asked how to get more young people involved. I regularly speak to school students, a rewarding endeavour, and let them question me. One wag asked me in a school recently to tell him what I earned. I asked if he was computer literate and he said he was. I gave him the address of my website and told him that he would find exactly what I earn – it is a matter of public record – rather than get into a debate with him.
On Monday 24 November, I started my day at 11 a.m. in Dunlavin school in County Wicklow, addressing the youngsters for an hour and a half. I then went to get the afternoon flight to Brussels and worked in my office until 9.30 p.m., with one short meeting at 7 p.m. The next morning I flew back to Dublin with the European Monetary Affairs Committee – there is no Irish representative on the committee and I was asked to accompany its members. We had meetings with Mr. John Hurley, the governor of the Central Bank, the Stock Exchange, the Minister for Finance, IBEC and others. It was a very interesting day. We finished in IBEC at 9 p.m. after supper and I was asked if would I take the committee to a famous Irish pub for a pint. I do not know when I was last in a pub in Dublin but I delivered and found a well known watering hole on Baggot Street. The next morning I tried to fly back to attend an environment committee because the issue of veterinary medicines was being debated, including my amendment. I missed my flight at Dublin Airport and got re-routed through Amsterdam. The Amsterdam connection was cancelled because of fog and I ended up taking a bus from Amsterdam to Brussels so I will not describe the humour I was in when I arrived on Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning I appeared at the environment committee to table my amendment. I then flew back that afternoon for Pat Cox's State visit as President of the European Parliament and we had to attend a dinner. On Friday I was in Belfast until 8 p.m., then I drove to Galway to chair a session of our party conference on Saturday, 29 November. At 4 p.m. on Saturday I drove home and watched Deputy Enda Kenny on the television and was duly impressed. That is all in one week. I left home on Monday and got back at 7 p.m. on the Saturday having flown back and forth from Brussels twice to do what I thought needed to be done.
I thank Ms Doyle for coming to address the Seanad. It was a most informative presentation. I served with her on Wexford County Council for some years and she was a valued member of the council. It is fair to say that Fine Gael has failed to fill the void she left. She is an articulate and positive voice for Ireland in the European Parliament and I wish her well whether she chooses to continue her political career or decides to retire in June 2004 after 30 years of service.