Big, monstrous even and difficult to navigate due to its scale – and that’s just the European Union’s website.
Just over a year into this European Parliament’s cycle, Ireland’s 11-strong team of MEPs (effectively 10 at present in Brussels due to Brian Crowley’s poor health) have a lot on their collective plate.
Selling the message about the benefits of being part of a 28-strong union of 700-million plus citizens in an era when misinformation is as prevalent as fact is not an easy sell.
And while challenging the bureaucracy that the European project is inextricably linked to is no bad thing, Ireland’s membership of this club, 42 years on, remains a glass half-full narrative.
However, the decision to become part of the monetary union, and the manner in which our native fishing fleet has been negatively impacted upon over the past four decades, certainly occupies that one and same glass’s drained half.
And the challenges facing our fishing industry will be discussed in Lawlor’s Hotel in Dungarvan on Saturday next, where Ireland South MEP Liadh Ní Riada (SF) will chair an international conference titled ‘A Fair Recovery For Irish Fishermen’.
But back to our parliamentarians and their considerable workloads. Be it zig-zagging between Brussels and Strasbourg for plenary sessions, the necessity to get home and hold clinics in expanded constituencies, and the additional travel that this entails on home soil, being an MEP is not a soft gig. Far from it.
Attempting to find an Ireland-specific focus in this post-milk quota era is a somewhat futile exercise, but as any of the four Irish MEPs the regional press met with on Thursday last will concede, what’s in it for Ireland remains a foremost thought among constituents.
Even amidst the hulking architecture of ‘Civil Service Central’ in Brussels, where nowadays the security checks can prove as dense as the red tape the EU is now infamous for, all politics remains local.
“We do work together on a lot of things,” said Marian Harkin (Ind – Midlands/North-West), when discussing the nature of our MEPs’ working relationships.
“One of the differences here is that we don’t have anything like the same level of party political division that exists in the Dáil, even if we do sit in distinct political groupings within the parliament. But you will find, if you look at the voting patterns of many Irish MEPs – now not in all cases – that there is quite a similarity when it comes to (voting on) the big issues.”
Sean Kelly (FG – Ireland South) echoed Ms Harkin’s sentiments. “That is the great difference between here and the Dáil, that we can vote against our group on issues of national interest. For instance in our group, the EPP, I as leader of Fine Gael in this parliament, will stand up or send in a written statement explaining that we did not vote with the group on this as it would not be in Ireland’s best interest.”
Marian Harkin added: “And it’s not even a case of having to say sorry to your grouping when you take a stance like that. And other members of your group from other Member States understand that because, on occasion, they’ll find themselves in a similar position, defending their respective national interest.”
One of the long-standing criticisms of the European Parliament is a more implicit criticism of the European Commission, where Kilkenny’s Phil Hogan now hangs his hat: in that the real power in Europe lies with the Commission, and not within the body elected by the people.
“MEPs love standing up in parliament and criticising the Commission,” said Sean Kelly.
“But the great thing, and another major difference between here and the Civil Service at home, is that the Commissioners have to come to the parliament. They have to attend every single session, they have to make their statements, and we get to quiz them, so they are far more accountable. And also, we can write to them, and they have to reply to us within six weeks, so they’re far more accountable than the public service are at home.”
Mr Kelly added: “They’re the guardians of the (European) Treaty and if something goes wrong, they’re supposed to be on the ball, and if they’re not, they get slated in parliament. But overall, there’s a fairly good working relationship between the Parliament and the Commission, I feel. Tension is a good thing between institutions – if they were all ‘pal-sy wal-sy’, there’d be something wrong.”
First-time MEP Lynn Boylan (SF – Dublin) replied with no little irony when asked was life as a European Parliamentarian as bureaucratic as she’d anticipated before taking her seat last year.
“It’s a total monster,” she admitted. “It’s incredibly frustrating given how long it takes things to progress out here. Even just bringing groups in – there’s so much back and forth and everything is paperwork-based. So yes, it is very frustrating but it is also very enjoyable, seeing how legislation is formed. By the time it’s implemented back in Ireland, it’s too late to affect any sort of change so I think that’s really interesting – you get to see where legislation starts and then you do your best to affect it.
“And because it’s all done through consensus and compromise, that in itself can also be very frustrating, especially when you feel particularly passionate about certain subjects. But it’s also a good learning curve when you spend so much time working on reports and also try and assess it from the other side of the table. Frustrating? Yes, but we’ve had some rewards already a year or more in.”
European Parliament Vice-President Mairead McGuinness (FG – Midlands/North West), in what proved the refrain of this Regional Press Seminar, stated: “Things do move slowly here, but if you stick with a few issues, then you can make a difference, and it can be difficult to transpose what may take several years of work to achieve into, for example, a single press release. Going through articles line by line, word by word, is incredibly tedious and time consuming, but that’s what we’re here for. That’s why we’re elected.”
Referring to the refugee/migration crisis, which the EU is still struggling to grasp, at least in a collective cross-Member State context, has relegated the Union’s ongoing economic problems.
“It is off the agenda for now,” she said. “We have suddenly realised, albeit a bit late in the day, that migration is the biggest global issue we have to face…but if we don’t address the fear factor and bring citizens across the EU with us, then we will run into further problems. We need to deal with people as human beings, not in these cattle-truck like scenes that we’ve witnessed at quite a few borders.”
Ms McGuinness added: “We’ve not been psychologically impacted by this at all in Ireland; there are no boats landing on our shores…I think it is the issue of our generation and it’s one we need to deal with.
“But the world has coped before. This is not the first mass movement of people due to war and I feel we have the capacity to deal with it, and the rowing that’s been going on within Europe is part of finding the solution. Many are saying ‘isn’t it awful that there isn’t unanimity on this’ but when is there ever unanimity, on a mass scale, between human beings? At least there’s the space here to debate it.”
There are many nettles that require grasping: be it the migration crisis, trade with the United States and Asia, the ongoing difficulties in Greece (which cannot be forgotten), climate change and future energy policies and agriculture, Mairead McGuinness’ point was most moot. At least in Europe, in Brussels, we do have the space to debate it. And we who elect the Parliament, who in turn challenge the Commission, should politely annoy our representatives to do their jobs as best they can. That, after all, is what they’re there for.
* Many thanks to Catherine Bunyan (European Parliament Office in Ireland) and Ruth Deasy (European Commission Office in Ireland) for their assistance during last week’s Regional Press Seminar.
For more information (and there’s a lot to take in), visit
www.europa.eu and www.europarl.europa.eu