Thursday, 23 January 2014
European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2013: Second Stage
The Bill before the House today is short. It provides for the election of 11 MEPs for Ireland arising from the European Council decision of 28 June 2013. In that decision the number of Members of the European Parliament to be elected for the 2014-19 parliamentary term in each member state is set. The Bill also provides for the implementation of the recommendations of the report on European Parliament constituencies 2013 which was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 25 September 2013.
The Bill has four sections. Section 1 provides that the principal Act referred to in the Bill is the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. It is that Act that is being amended. Section 2 provides, by amending section 15 of the principal Act, that the counties and cities listed in the new Third Schedule to the Act will be those in existence on 1 January 2013. Section 3 provides for the substitution of the Third Schedule to the principal Act. The new Third Schedule sets out the name of each constituency, the counties and cities that each constituency will be comprised of, and the number of Members that will be elected for each constituency in European elections held after 1 January 2014.
The major change from the current configuration is that there will be three constituencies, instead of four. The reason for this change is that the Electoral Act 1997 specifies that there shall be three, four or five Members in an European Parliament constituency. Given that 11 Members are to be elected for the 2014-19 parliamentary term, having four constituencies is not a viable option, since it is not possible to allocate 11 seats across four constituencies of three, four or five Members.
I will now set out for the House the configuration of each of the three constituencies. The three-seat Dublin constituency remains unchanged. This will be comprised of the counties of Fingal, Dún-Laoghaire-Rathdown and South Dublin, along with the city of Dublin. There will be a new four-seat midlands-north-west constituency. This will be comprised of counties Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath, along with the city of Galway. In effect, this new constituency consists of the present north-west constituency, along with five counties which were in the former east constituency, but it will not contain County Clare. The new south constituency will be comprised of the present south constituency along with four counties from the former east constituency and County Clare. It will consist of counties Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Limerick, North Tipperary, South Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow, along with the cities of Cork, Limerick and Waterford.
The population per MEP in the three constituencies ranges from 409,276 to 424,356, which is a very narrow range in terms of the variance of population per MEP. Thus there is a very fair balance of representation between the three constituencies. The Dublin constituency will see its representation closely aligned with the other constituencies in the State.
There is a considerable degree of continuity in the arrangement of the constituencies, in spite of the change from four to three. The new midlands-north-west constituency will subsume the current north-west constituency along with the northern part of the east constituency, while the new south constituency will take in the current south constituency, along with Clare and the southern part of the east constituency. The Dublin constituency will remain unchanged.
The previous Constituency Commission reported in 2012 and recommended no change to the European constituencies at that time. In the normal course, constituency commissions were only set up following a national census of population. However, with the impending accession of Croatia to the European Union, the European Council decided in June 2013 on a new allocation of seats to member states in the European Parliament. The Electoral, Local Government, Planning and Development Act 2013 provided for the amendment of electoral law to allow for the setting up of a constituency commission in the circumstance that the allocation of seats to the European Parliament had been changed, but a census was not held or due to be held. The European Parliament Constituency Committee was duly set up and reported on 25 September 2013. The Bill provides for the implementation of the recommendations in the committee's report.
As I said in my introduction, this is a short Bill. It has the specific purpose of providing for new constituencies in which 11 MEPs will be elected to represent the State in the European Parliament for the 2014-19 parliamentary term.
In presenting the Bill the Government is continuing the long-established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of independent constituency reviews.
I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to the House.
The Fianna Fáil Party supports the European Parliament but opposes the legislation which unfairly deprives Ireland of a strong representation in Europe. The reduction earmarks Ireland for reduction as part of the accession of Croatia as the 28th state in the Union. The reduction from 12 to 11 seats facilitates the reduction of numbers in the European Parliament and the accommodation of the Croatian delegation at a time when Ireland needs a strong voice in Europe. The decision to cut numbers was made at intergovernmental level in June 2013, with the Government failing to voice its opposition. The specific constituency format of large sprawling areas reflects the recommendations of the Constituency Commission under the constraints set by the new seat level.
The Bill introduces a new constituency format for the upcoming European Parliament elections on 23 May 2014, the same day as the local elections. The total number of Irish seats has been reduced from 12 to 11. Ireland had already lost one fifth of its representation in the European Parliament, having been gradually cut from 15 to 12 seats, and a further cut of a seat to 11 hits Ireland disproportionately hard.
The European Parliament currently has 754 MEPs, distributed between all 27 member states, but the entry of Croatia to the Union this year which Fianna Fáil fully welcomes combined with the implementation of parts of the Lisbon treaty, which limit the membership to 751, means some countries must lose seats. On the arbitrary basis that countries with 12 seats must lose, Ireland has suffered a one seat loss. This must be reviewed in the future. The more countries that accede to the EU, the fewer seats countries such as Ireland will have, reducing to a maximum of six, if it continues in this light. That would be grossly unfair.
The reduction of numbers was implemented without any meaningful consultation with the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee. This weakens the Irish voice in the Chamber at a time when the Parliament has grown and expanded in powers and influence. This is particularly important for Ireland as we seek a better deal from Europe on our bank debt and investment to help get the economy going again.
With only 11 MEPs the workload of the Irish representatives will be even more thinly spread over 20 committees, which is where the majority of work is done in the European Parliament. Irish voices will be significantly limited in these critical areas.
The general guidelines for the size of Irish constituencies are laid out in the electoral laws dating from 1997 along with the establishment of the Constituency Commission. The same part of the Act governs how Dáil and European constituencies are set up. Importantly, it sets the same criteria for each. This means, as with the Dáil, European constituencies must elect between three and five Members.
The number of MEPs for each country is roughly in proportion to its population. Under the Lisbon treaty no country can have fewer than six or more than 96 MEPs. The numbers in the European Parliament were set before the coming into force of the treaty and they will be adjusted for the next mandate of the European Parliament. For example, the number of MEPs for Germany will be reduced from 99 to 96 while for Malta the number will increase from five to six. Several other countries will lose seats to accommodate the Croatian delegation to the European Parliament. Germany will lose three seats while Romania, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and Lithuania will have one seat less.
The European Parliament constitutional affairs committee was not given the opportunity to make an independent input into the decision-making process for the seat reduction. All Irish MEPs opposed the decision. The final decision was made at a Council meeting in June 2013 at which the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, failed to protect Ireland's interests. The new sprawling constituencies laid out in the Bill reflect the constraints placed on the Constituency Commission by the agreement to reduce the number of seats to 11.
The European Parliament has expanded greatly in influence and power in the past two decades. It has evolved from what was essentially a talking shop and a consultative body in 1973 to a powerful part of the European machinery. This renders the number of Irish seats representing the interests of the people even more important. The replacement of member state contributions by community-owned resources led to the first extension of the parliamentary budget under the powers of the budgetary treaty signed in Luxembourg on 22 April 1970. A second treaty on the same subject of parliamentary powers was signed in Brussels on 27 July 1975.
The size of areas covered by the new constituencies is daunting to say the least. Let us consider the western constituency area, in which I live. The areas included are Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo, Westmeath and the city of Galway. That is an unwieldy constituency for four seats and represents a difficult task for candidates seeking election. I take this opportunity to wish them every success. They are taking on a major task to campaign in a rather unwieldy constituency. The Acting Chairman is aware of the circumstances last time around, but the area has been expanded further, stretching from the coast of Meath to the coast of Mayo. It is a major and daunting task for any individual to campaign in that region. Certainly, it would not favour smaller or minority groups. That is the position.
I put it to the Minister that in future negotiations there should be calls for the size of the European Parliament to be expanded and to factor in that we cannot take any more losses, go down below 11 seats or accept the same number of seats as Malta or Luxembourg. That would be grossly unfair and the Government should stand up and demand that our position and that of other smaller countries is protected.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He has laid out the objectives of the Bill. There will now be a reduction overall from 12 to 11 seats. As the last speaker said, we welcome the accession of smaller countries and more countries to the European Union but cognisance must be taken of the fact that the seat reduction has taken place and was done by the Commission. The reduction means that Ireland will have one less representative in the European Parliament, which is not in any way ideal, because MEPs must cover a vast area as it stands. There will be one less voice to represent Irish interests but the reduction is pan-European and therefore every member state is losing MEPs according to size and population.
This legislation, as well as the legislation on the minimum number of MEPs a country may have, follows from the Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Act of 2013, which allowed for the establishment of a committee to examine European Parliament constituencies and make changes to the current nomination requirements for non-Irish or UK nationals standing in European Parliament elections here. This Bill includes the committee's recommended changes to the constituencies.
At present, the constituencies are rather large and the Bill proposes changes whereby the constituencies would be larger still with the abolition of the Ireland East constituency. I do not intend to go into the detail I have before me because the Minister has outlined it in his contribution and I would only be duplicating what he has said. Instead, I will concentrate on the enlarging of the constituencies. This will mean vast swathes of the country will have to be covered by each MEP, stretching from Malin Head to Laois, a daunting task for anyone.
Naturally, MEPs have a different remit to national parliamentarians and county councillors in that the national interest is paramount. Furthermore, they are charged with meeting constituents and constituency groups in each constituency. If they do not, they will not be elected. Therefore, we cannot ignore that they must get around the constituencies. It is a major job.
I pay tribute to one of our own who is retiring. Mr. Gay Mitchell, MEP, has done us great service and has announced his retirement. He has been in the European Parliament since 2004 and was in the Lower House for 20 years before that. I imagine we will get other opportunities to pay respect to all the retiring politicians from the European Parliament. They have given us such service. Mr. Mitchell is among them but there are others as well. Since I know Mr. Mitchell I mentioned him in particular and the service he has given for the Dublin region and Dublin South-Central.
As it stands, MEPs in the Ireland North-West constituency must take into account people living in Kilrush and Moville. I am unsure whether it is physically possible to cover that territory and engage with constituents. The matter should be opened up, not at the time of an election but after the European elections, to an academic debate in the Seanad. There is no better place to have a debate on the European Parliament composition and the population versus that of other countries and so on. The last speaker referred to small countries and Ireland having the same number of representatives as Malta. Perhaps there should be a debate about single-seat constituencies or a national list system to get away from these vast constituencies. That is an academic debate that we should have but not at election time. We should use the Seanad for a debate afterwards. MEPs tend to be located in physically different areas and in practice the boundaries might be somewhat smaller when it comes to working out the changes.
The Constituency Commission report of 2012 recommended that no change be made to the existing constituencies for the election of 12 MEPs. However, the constituency revision has now been completed and we must operate with one less MEP in advance of the next election in May, bringing down the total number. Let us compare ourselves with other EU countries. In terms of population we could not argue because, per head of population and with the loss of one Member, it is not too bad. Germany has one seat for every 852,539 people and Ireland has a seat for every 416,615 people. We would lose the argument if it was simply on population, especially if Germany or the larger countries came into the fray. However, there is a good deal more to put into the argument than simply the matter of population and the large versus the small.
The legislation passed last year will ensure that the total number of Members of the European Parliament to be elected in the State will be specified. The Minister and the previous speaker have said enough on that and therefore I will not dwell on it.
Under the provisions of Article 29 of the Constitution, as recently amended, the Seanad must give prior approval to EU proposals for enhanced co-operation, the Schengen acquis and the opt-out for Ireland in respect of EU measures on freedom, security and justice, including the ending of that opt-out.
As a result of the legislation passed last year, the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 has been amended to transpose changes made by Directive 2013/1/EU, which changes the nomination procedures for EU nationals who stand for the European Parliament in a country where they are a resident but not a national. This is a welcome change as it means that where a resident of one EU country, who is a national of another EU country, wishes to run as a candidate in a European Parliament election, the relevant information available from the home member state must be provided in an appropriate manner within five working days from receipt of the notification or, where possible, within a shorter time.
The purpose of this is to make the process of running as a candidate in another EU jurisdiction if one is resident in that jurisdiction easier and to give more a more appropriate timeframe for the assessment of the suitability of such a candidate in the adopted country of residence.
The statutory constituency commission carries out periodic reviews of the European Parliament and the Dáil constituencies. The commission carried out a review in 2012 recommending that the constituencies remain unchanged but as a result of the European Parliament's decision in March 2013 to reduce the overall number of MEPs it had to reconvene last year. Its role is advisory and its recommendations are not binding but we should take on board its findings given the scrutiny and the independence of the commission as it comprised a variety of individuals. I compliment the commission on the work it has done. The commission chose to opt for optimal equality in terms of representation with no breach of county boundaries and allocating four seats to each of the two non-Dublin constituencies but this has been changed. The changes made to Schedule 3 of the European Parliament Election Act 1997 will change current MEP constituencies. I wish good luck to all of the candidates and particularly to our own candidates. All of the people who put themselves up for election in any election must be commended and complimented I wish them a safe journey on their long road of travel.
The EU is of increasing importance in all our lives and more and more decisions affecting Ireland are being made at EU level. What we can see is a two-fold development in respect of the European Parliament which is that more and more legislation is before it affecting our lives and impacting on our country in ways that are generally positive and, as Senator Terry Leyden and others have said, the European Parliament itself has more and more power within that process. There was a time when the European Parliament was largely a body that was consulted but we have moved to a co-decision situation where in more decisions in more areas the European Parliament's assent is required as well as that of the Council of Ministers. That is now represented as the ordinary legislative procedure. By and large, that is a good thing, in that the European Parliament represents the citizenry of the European Union whereas the Council of Ministers tends to represent the governments elected by the people.
In one sense we see an increase in direct democracy. The problem that poses is that within the European Parliament Ireland has a very small number of MEPs. Compared with the Council of Ministers, it is arguable that the Irish voice within that Chamber will struggle to make itself heard. It is not in our interests that we have gone from having 12 MEPs to 11. That means we must have all the more vocal and proactive MEPs and Independents have a particular role to play in that regard. In my CV to date I have worked in a different but similar body, namely, the Council of Europe. I was a member of the Irish parliamentary delegation for a year and had very productive co-operation with MPs from other European countries, not just European Union countries.
The EU is a mixed blessing. It is not loved. When I go around talking to people, apart from the fact that they are delighted to hear I am running as an Independent - the Minister will not be surprised to hear that Independents are popular at the moment-----
There is a feeling that on the one hand, the EU has been a very positive force in our lives - we can think of equal pay for men and women. As a son of a small farmer I am very conscious of the EU solidarity dimension. We had a debate yesterday on the successful negotiation of Pillar 2 of the CAP. On the other hand, the downside of the EU is that it sometimes goes beyond its remit and interferes in areas that ought properly to be left to member states. Only in recent weeks the European Union made a representation to the Romanian Government telling it that the putting down of stray dogs was a matter it ought to be careful about even though that approach was not within the EU's remit. I sometimes think that some of the Commissioners have too much time on their hands and are interfering excessively. We see the European Union at its best when it is an institution or a collection of institutions. When it starts to imagine itself as a new country, to which we must all show some kind of allegiance, then it is at its worst and that is where people least sympathise with its aims.
I am not opposing the Bill. There would have been an argument for a national list, to which Senator Cáit Keane referred. Even the naming of the Midlands-North West constituency must have proved a problem. There may be people in the counties of Louth and Meath who wonder why "North East" was not included in some way in the title of the constituency.
In this disadvantaged situation in which we find ourselves, with 11 MEPs instead of 12 as previously, it is all the more important that we have strong Independent voices.
I welcome the Minister and thank and wish Senator Rónán Mullen well in his endeavours. It is a pity we are continuing the process of reducing the number of MEPs from Ireland. We have lost about a third as I understand we had 16 at one time. The number is being continuously reduced. We need that representation and support in the European Parliament. John Bruton, the previous Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, has pointed out that in the United States small states are looked after better. Their representation is guaranteed and they have a guaranteed number of Senators compared to the large states, such as New York and California. We have a question to raise as to why our representation has been reduced so much. The MEPs have addressed this House, all of whom impressed us, and they found it a very valuable exercise as well. They said that in no other country they could think of do MEPs come back and address a House of Parliament. That was major innovation by our Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, and this House.
I agree with Senator Rónán Mullen that the constituencies are unwieldy. From Moneygall to Malin Head is one constituency and from Bray to Mizen Head is one constituency. I do not think it is possible for people to serve those, which is a pity.
One of the things about the European Parliament that may account for some of the alienation referred to by Senator Rónán Mullen is that person A runs for election and then makes a personal gift of his seat to somebody else. That should end. Let us have a by-election. It must discredit the Parliament that it is looking at candidates whom it never heard of. The reason is that a big name candidate ran in the last election. Even the House of Lords in the adjoining island, which passes on titles, that is being discredited. If we are to remove some of the alienation people feel from the European Parliament the personal benefactor practice of handing seats from the person we elected to a person whom he or she chooses must end. I do not think one could have done it any other way. One of the comments people have made is that it will be very hard to get the All-Ireland hurling title from anywhere but these constituencies as they include all the hurling counties but we will keep trying.
I share the overall concerns that it is not good for democracy, Ireland at large and the electorate that there is a downward curve in our overall representation. I cannot believe my good fortune to be present for the maiden speech in the House from Senator Rónán Mullen, speaking as a candidate for the elections to the European Parliament and who is embarking on this difficult task. I commend everyone who puts their name on a ballot paper. It is not an easy station. There was a hint that Senator Mullen was going to run but given his recent contributions I was not sure how independent he would be. I do not know if there are shades of Reform Alliance, UKIP or other bits and pieces creeping in.
Nonetheless, I wish all the candidates well because, as I said, it is not an easy task to put one's name on the ballot paper, particularly in these times. Politics, in some lexicons, has become a dangerous place to be in many people's eyes. Credibility is an issue.
I agree with Senator Keane that we at the 11th hour in terms of the election, which has been set for Friday, 23 May. It has been very difficult for candidates who wish to contest the election and for the incumbents to see the constituencies altered so radically. As other Senators said, there is a lack of cohesion in that regard. Senator Barrett summed it up well when he said one constituency will stretch from Moneygall to Malin Head. It will be hard for candidates with the reduced number and with new sprawling constituencies.
The electorate is losing out to some extent. The EU is a victim of its own success with so many new member states, which we welcome. We welcome states like Croatia joining the EU. Further expansion is likely and is welcome but it should not be at the expense of political and public representation in countries like Ireland.
I do not envy anybody going out into these new sprawling constituencies and I suggest that after the election, we look at the nature and scale of the constituencies in an apolitical and independent fashion in the best interest of representation. The European Parliament is now a very important, potent and powerful body and we should not see any further reduction in our representation in the Parliament.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for his short contribution on what he described as a very short Bill, which it is. I think the explanatory memorandum is longer than the Bill. In essence, it reduces the number of MEPs elected to represent the Twenty-six Counties from 12 to 11, to which we are totally opposed. This decision was taken at intergovernmental level in June 2013 and the Taoiseach did not put up a strong case and argue against the reduction of one, which we believe was a major mistake.
The European Parliament elections, as Senator Whelan stated, will take place on 23 May. He outlined to the House that the constituency in which I live will now stretch from Moneygall to Donegal to Dunboyne, bordering the sprawling Dublin area. At a time when interest in European Parliament elections has been dwindling, the expansion of the constituencies will not help generate an interest in these elections among the general public.
As colleagues stated, the European Parliament is gaining more power but our representation is being reduced, which is unacceptable. I welcome the fact Croatia has become the 28th member of the European Union but I am saddened this has resulted in a reduction in the number of public representatives representing this country in that Parliament. As Senator Colm Burke, who is a former Member of the European Parliament, has often outlined, the maximum amount of time a Member gets to speak in most debates is one minute. If our contribution to major debates is to be reduced to a maximum of 11 minutes, we are not being properly represented.
Like other colleagues, I wish everybody contesting the European Parliament election the very best of luck, including Senator Mullen, who will be in my constituency. He will not get my No. 1 vote but I assure him I will not forget him before I put the ballot paper in the ballot box.
Is this the last reduction in the number of people to be elected from this State to the European Parliament? Perhaps the Minister cannot answer that. However, it is ironic that he is implementing legislation a few months before he heads to Europe to represent us as our Commissioner. I wish him well in that regard.
I hope the Minister does not get the environment portfolio because his record to date as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has not been a very successful one. I say that to the Minister as the holder of the office; it is not personal as he is someone for whom I have huge regard.
I welcome the Minister. I agree with speakers who said we need to look at the long-term composition of the European Parliament constituencies. I contested the European Parliament election and am still paying off some of the loans for that election. I make no apologies for saying that and have no regrets about the decision I took in contesting it. If I was asked, I would do so all over again because it is important to have strong representation at European level. I certainly learned a lot in the two years I spent there but I also made a contribution. All of our MEPs down through the years have made a substantial contribution.
I am concerned about the size of the constituencies. In the long-term, we should look at the possibility of 11 one-seat constituencies because candidates will face a financial drain and it will be a problem with which they will have to deal when elected, as will those who do not get elected. We might have a situation in this election where someone might get more than 100,000 votes but not get elected even though to get elected to this Chamber, one may need as few as 40 votes. It is a comparison at which we should look.
In terms of getting strong representation, we need to ensure people are not under financial pressure when trying to do their job as Members of the European Parliament. The media reports about earnings and expenses are not accurate. I remember doing an interview with a media person in 2009 and his salary was ten times the salary I earned but we were being hammered left, right and centre about expenses. Receipts must be produced for all expenses but the media did not buy into that.
The other issue I have about the European Parliament is the coverage by our national broadcaster. It is outrageous that it is only given coverage once a month after midnight on a Sunday. It is an institution which plays a very important part in legislation on which we must follow through here. We should ask the national broadcaster why it only provides coverage after midnight on a Sunday once a month as it is not good enough. Even if it was confined to one night a month, then at least have it at a reasonable hour. We should ensure the 12 Members of the European Parliament get recognition for the work they do because I do not believe they are getting that recognition.
We will now be down to 11 Members of the European Parliament. Given the number of committees in the Parliament, it will mean there will be some committees on which there will be no representation from Ireland because it would be physically impossible for 11 Members to serve on more than 25 committees, although I am open to correct on that number, or even to monitor them. That is something which needs to be taken into account in any further discussions on the composition of the European Parliament.
It also means that as a country we should try to give more support to the Members of the European Parliament who will be elected after May. We do not give our MEPs sufficient support.
There has been an obvious disconnection from Europe over the past three or four years. We did not get the message out about the good things done at European level. Agriculture is the one area that produces a positive message about benefits. There are many other benefits, such as access to the market and health and safety measures, for example, the toy safety directive. Many people could not understand that sub-standard products were coming into Europe. Through the intervention of the European Commissioner, many products were taken off the market. That applied in other areas, for example, in the health sector. More co-operation across Europe is reaping benefits for all of us. We are not selling that positive message. We need to give more support to the elected Members of the European Parliament, regardless of party or whether they are independent. That is something we should do after the European elections, for the following five years.
I welcome the Minister to the House and the publication of the Bill which allows for the holding of the European elections. I wish the best of luck to all the candidates who will contest the forthcoming European and local elections.
I was a European election candidate in 2004 and my wife contested the European elections in 2009, so I know what it is like to be a candidate. The constituencies are bigger now, making it a big challenge for any candidate to cover the ground necessary during this campaign. That is one of the concerns many of us have about bigger constituencies and fewer MEPs. It also feeds into the perception of a democratic deficit for small states at the heart of Europe because big states can dominate and control the European Union. Whether that is a fear, a perception or a reality, it exists. Small states have to protect their interests as much as they can, which means keeping the maximum number of MEPs and our Commissioner.
I campaigned against the Lisbon treaty for a variety of reasons, including the proposed reduction of the Commission, which would mean that small states would have a Commissioner on a rotation basis. Ireland would not have had a full-time Commissioner. I hope that when the Minister is appointed, he will remember Sinn Féin and those who campaigned for Ireland’s right to have a Commissioner
I very much hope that when the Minister takes up that big job, he will remember all those who campaigned very vigorously to have a Commissioner. The Minister campaigned in favour of the original Lisbon treaty and could have unwittingly done himself out of a job, but that is a different story. We do not have 11 MEPs in Ireland. We will have 14 because there are three in the North.
They are Irish MEPs. One of the good things to happen in recent years is that there is much greater all-island co-operation between our MEPs on very important issues such as the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and those areas. We need to consider these issues from an all-island perspective and not in the partitionist way that some do.
The European Union faces big challenges. I was part of a delegation from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation which travelled to Brussels in January to meet European Commissioners, Secretaries General of some of the directorates and senior civil servants, including Catherine Day. We met many very interesting people. It was a very interesting engagement whose purpose was to improve the relationship between our committee and the EU institutions. One of the things that struck me, including the debate and conversation we had with the Commissioner, is that it is a difficult balancing act to ensure small states are protected from the big states. We have to ensure the European Union can function and is not gridlocked because every member state can hold back every vote. There is a strong view that every treaty passed in recent years gives more power to Europe and particularly to the big countries because the veto has been reduced and it has moved to qualified majority voting in most areas. The number of MEPs has been reduced and there was an attempt to reduce the Commission, which was not in the interests of small states but only in the interests of big states.
While I support the Bill, I hope that if the Minister ends up in the European Commission, he will be mindful of protecting the small states and their interests. That will convince the people of Europe that the European Union is truly democratic and has the interests of all citizens at heart, that there is no democratic deficit and that big countries cannot control or dominate the small countries. We have to continue to fight for Ireland’s interests and those of all small states. We have punched above our weight in Europe and we have to continue to do it, but we also have to be mindful of the institutional changes that can work against us at times. While some of them work for us, some can work against us. I welcome the Bill and commend the Minister on bringing it forward today.
I, too, welcome the Minister to the House. The reduction in numbers is regrettable but blaming the Minister or the Taoiseach, or anyone who represents Ireland in the EU, for that reduction is misguided because it is an unfortunate by-product of enlargement that the MEPs are reduced by one. It was regrettable but it affected the whole EU and we are not unique. On a parochial level, I welcome that Dublin has remained one constituency and retains its three MEPs.
I did a survey some months ago on the disconnection between the public and the EU. My office surveyed more than 300 people, 91% of whom could not name an MEP in Dublin. One lady thought that Angela Merkel was a Dublin MEP. She was a very nice lady but that was a source of some amusement in the office. I concur with Senator Barrett’s point about co-options and there are very few people who would refuse a co-option if they were interested in matters European. It is a factor in the lack of connection. If people do not vote for a person, it is very difficult for them to know who represents them in the European Parliament. There is a level of apathy generally in respect of politics but even more so in respect of the EU because people’s interaction with the EU is at a very low level. We must be mindful of that. The reduction in numbers will not serve to improve things.
I, too, pay tribute to Gay Mitchell who has been a fine MEP for Dublin. I cannot recall which Senator said that MEPs do not get proper recognition for the work that they do. I think it was Senator Burke. That is probably because of the detail involved in so many of the regulations and laws from Europe. I wish whoever succeeds Gay Mitchell and any candidates for the European elections throughout the country the very best of luck. I commend the Minister on the legislation.
I welcome the Minister. To follow the theme that seems to be developing in this debate, the disconnection between the ordinary citizen and the European parliamentary institutions, I suggest that these large unwieldy constituencies will contribute even more to that lack of connection.
I was a candidate in the 2009 European elections in the constituency that included Connacht, Ulster, Clare, Longford and Westmeath, comprising a total of 11 counties and a very dispersed population. An additional four counties have been added to that constituency, giving a total of 15. One of the more positive aspects of the commission's report is that County Clare has been returned to Munster. I recall canvassing and electioneering in that county, where it soon became apparent that the people living there did not see themselves as anything other than Munster people. They did not empathise in any way with Connacht-Ulster and did not see themselves as part of that body politic. When the vote was returned, the local candidate, Michael McNamara -now Deputy McNamara - had obtained the highest proportion of the Clare vote. That success helped to parachute him into the Dáil. I wish him nothing but luck as he is a very decent man and a very good public representative.
This was a salutary lesson, however, in how tribalism and parochialism continue to loom large in Irish elections, irrespective of the size or constitution of a particular constituency. My concern is that this type of parochialism will be evident in the two larger constituencies outside of Dublin, which will make it more difficult for candidates to engage with voters who are located at a significant geographical distance from the candidate. It is another factor that contributes to the disconnect between voters and their MEPs. That disconnect is becoming increasingly evident in the findings of opinion polls. While such surveys in the past showed a very positive view of Europe and European institutions on the part of Irish people, often suggesting they had more faith in European institutions than in Irish political institutions, there has been a significant change in recent years. I am sure that is a concern for the Government.
I support Senator Colm Burke's suggestion that a future electoral commission might be directed to consider the creation of one-seat, single Member constituencies. This would narrow the focus and make the work of MEPs more relevant to particular geographical areas. It might even help to stimulate a greater level of support for European parliamentary institutions. Will the Minister outline his view on this idea of single-seat constituencies? I note that the Constitutional Convention, in its debate on the electoral system, decided not to recommend change. This was surprising given that it is seen as somewhat more radical than the mainstream political system, representing, as it does, the wider public view. Perhaps there is an innate conservatism in Irish people, which might have been reflected in the outcome of the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. In that instance, people were not prepared to ditch an element of the Constitution simply because the Government of the day proposed it. That referendum was not the first occasion on which a Government experienced defeat on a proposal for electoral reform. Many decades ago, Fianna Fáil in government was unsuccessful in this regard on two occasions.
It is vital we look to the future. We cannot do anything about the current situation, even though it is detrimental to the representational role of MEPs. As Senator Burke pointed out, it will be impossible, with 11 Members in the Twenty-six Counties and three in the North, to cover between 20 and 25 European Parliament committees. As a result, Ireland's influence in Europe will be minimised. The question Senator Wilson asked is very relevant. Are we facing a situation where Irish representation in the European Parliament will continue to reduce as more countries join the Union, as a consequence of the treaty obligations relating to the cap on the number of MEPs? That is a very real concern in a context where Ireland has, in the past, always managed to punch way above its weight.
I take this opportunity to congratulate members of the Government on their engagement with the European institutions. The feedback I have received from MEPs is that Ministers who have attended meetings in Brussels have gone out of their way to ensure there is consultation with the MEPs, an engagement that did not happen under previous Administrations. This Government has conveyed a respect for and appreciation of the role of MEPs which I hope will continue. I conclude by echoing the good wishes of colleagues to the Minister in the event that he proves to be the chosen one.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I appreciate his hands are effectively tied in respect of the legislation before us. The date is set for the European elections and we are not going to do a complete U-turn at this stage in terms of how our Members will be elected on this occasion. I hope, however, that the Minister will take on board the points raised by colleagues today, particularly Senators Colm Burke and Sean Barrett. It is my hope that in five years time, regardless of the identity of the players on the stage - almost certainly none of us - we will have a different method of electing MEPs.
A year or so ago, I attended a Garret FitzGerald memorial lecture at which Brendan Halligan, a former Member of the Oireachtas and of the European Parliament, delivered a contribution that struck me as very profound. He observed that in the so-called conservative Ireland of the 1970s, Liam Cosgrave's coalition Government, in establishing the provision for the first directly elected representatives to the European Parliament, came to the conclusion that our existing multi-seat proportional representation system, while admirable in its operation when it came to electing Members to Dáil Éireann, was not suitable for electing Members to the European Parliament. The view of that Government and its advisers in 1973 was that an Irish parliamentary team of 14 or 15 on a European stage of 400 or 500 Members would not be able to play a substantial and constructive role unless it was a substantial and constructive team. With all due respect to the people standing in the forthcoming elections and those who were previously elected, the view of the then Government was that the quality of candidates seeking to represent this country as part of a small team on a large stage would be higher under a different electoral system. That Government was succeeded by Jack Lynch's Administration, which opted not to implement the recommendations of its predecessor.
After the forthcoming elections, we will have a team of 11 in a Parliament of almost 800 Members. In a forum where substantial decisions are being made, we must send forward the best people. I appreciate that we are facing a done deal in regard to 2014, but the reality is that the electoral system for European elections is probably not fit for purpose. Senator Burke has proposed 11 single-seat constituencies. People might have a difficulty with this on the grounds of the proportionality argument. The smaller parties are of the view - wrongly, in my view - that they would struggle to win seats under such an arrangement. Consideration should be given to some type of semi-list system, perhaps comprising a national list for the election of five or six MEPs together with five or six single-seat constituencies. If a party can obtain 7% or 10% of the national vote, it should be entitled to some representation in the European Parliament. I hope that when it comes to the 2019 elections, whoever is debating the issue in this and the other House, consideration will be given to a different electoral system. We must ask ourselves whether the people of this State are best represented by the current system. I am not convinced the answer is "Yes".
Several Senators referred to a disconnect between citizens and the European Parliament. We must be honest with ourselves in this regard. For the majority of people who will go to the polls in May, their primary concerns will be the elections to their local authority. That is where most of the interest will be. We will achieve a turnout of 55% or 60% simply because people want to vote in the local elections. Senator Burke presented me with a very interesting statistic some weeks ago, that in the 2004 elections, more than 30,000 people who voted in the local elections did not bother filling out the European election ballot paper. As a scholar of politics, the Minister will recall that in 1984, when the European elections were held on their own, the turnout was in the order of 35% or 40%. Although it is disappointing to acknowledge, the reality is that there is no great public interest in European elections. It is up to us to seek to turn that around.
People are going to vote in the local elections and we must try to ensure that they also engage fully with the process relating to the elections to the European Parliament. The 30,000 to 40,000 people who did not even bother to complete the ballot papers they received when the previous European elections were held should be encouraged to complete them on this occasion.
I hope that in the years to come we will exhibit bravery in the context of European Parliament elections. I am not suggesting that we should use them as a form of experiment but rather as a way of discovering whether a different electoral system might serve the country better. Our 11 players on the European Parliament stage - they will also be obliged to operate on the wider international stage - will have to be of premier league status. I am not sure that the current constituencies, which are made up not just of provinces but of those plus additional areas, offer the best medium for producing representatives of that calibre. Like Senator Noone, I wish all the candidates well. They are facing into a daunting and expensive task and I hope those who are successful will serve the country well in the European Parliament.
I thank all Senators who contributed to the debate. As stated at the outset, in this Bill we are continuing the practice of implementing, in full, the recommendations of an independent commission. I take into account people's concerns with regard to the geography and scale of the territory involved and their suggestions that we should examine the latter in the future. I have no difficulty doing that in the context of the review that will take place in 2016 of the elections that are due to be held in 2019.
A number of speakers indicated that the Government could have done more to ensure that Ireland would have in excess of 11 seats in the European Parliament. We previously had 12 seats. It must be noted that Croatia is going to obtain 11 seats. In that context, countries with populations that are similar in size to Ireland's ended up with approximately the same number of seats in proportion to their populations. Denmark, which has a population that is 500,000 greater than that of Ireland, has 13 seats. Croatia will have 11 and Slovenia is much the same as Ireland. However, Estonia, Latvia, Cyprus, Malta and a number of other countries will have considerably fewer seats than Ireland. It is extremely important that the 11 people who will be elected are linked to political groupings within the Parliament that have influence and clout. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are affiliated to the European People's Party and the Party of European Socialists, respectively. They are the two largest parties in the European Parliament, which is an important consideration. I do not subscribe to the view put forward by Senator Mullen that an independent Member of the European Parliament will in some way have a huge level of influence on decision making within the European Union. Independents will plough lone furrows and will not be working with groups such as the liberals, the European People's Party or the Party of European Socialists.
I am delighted Fianna Fáil joined a group in recent times because it had been on the fringes for a long period. I am delighted Senator Leyden brought this matter to my attention.
Fianna Fáil could not do that until the Progressive Democrats had departed the scene.
The Council's decision of June 2013 provided for the holding of elections to the European Parliament this year. Many of the concerns expressed by Senators are not, as Senator Bradford noted, really relevant in the context of the forthcoming elections. However, those concerns, some of which relate to the task facing any candidate, are genuine. I considered how we might provide financial assistance to people wishing to stand in the European elections but the in light of the current climate, such assistance would be perceived as giving additional support to politicians at a time when the country is under financial pressure. That is regrettable but it is representative of the sort of herd mentality with which one must deal. When that mentality takes over, the common sense debate relating to various issues involved, including the scale of the financial resources required by individuals and parties, goes out the window. Perhaps on some future occasion, and when times are better financially, we might consider providing additional support - based on 20% or 25% of the quota being reached - in order to foster greater participation in all of the European constituencies. That would, of course, be if we decide to continue with constituencies of the geographical scale outlined in the independent report.
From time to time there is a disconnect from the European scene. If, however, difficulties arose in the context of the financial supports for groups in society that are represented by the IFA, IBEC or the social partners, it would not be long before they were brought to our attention in terms of the connectivity required to obtain the necessary resources from the European Union. Regardless of the nature of any crisis which might arise, one regularly hears public representatives state that a case must be made to Europe. Making a case to Europe happens on an across-the-board basis. Had the European Union, its institutions and the IMF not supported us by means of the programme of assistance, we would not have had access to a cheap source of money similar to that which sustained the country in recent times. Some people wanted to know whether we should have remained in the programme of assistance in view of the fact that we were obtaining money at such a low rate. We can be the architects of our own problems on those occasions when we do not challenge certain people's dismissive approach to the European Union. Some might say that the EU does not assist us but massive amounts of money come into our country via the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, the European Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and the various rural development programmes. What we are asked to do is provide funds to match those which continue to be provided to us by the EU despite the fact that Ireland is in a much better place than was the case when it joined the then EEC in 1973.
I will investigate the matter raised by Senator Colm Burke whereby our national broadcaster has decided that it is appropriate to broadcast programmes relating to an entity such as the EU, which has a major influence on Irish affairs, at an hour when they are only seen by those who suffer from insomnia. The national broadcaster should be made aware of the Senator's view, and that of the House in general, to the effect that there must be greater connectivity between the parliamentary institutions and the Irish people in the context of the work of the European Union.
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Deirdre Clune
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Michael D'Arcy
- Aideen Hayden
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Marie Maloney
- Mary Moran
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Catherine Noone
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- John Whelan
- Katherine Zappone