We elect our MEPs every five years, but how many of us are aware of what they actually do once they reach the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg?
At times, the EU appears as a faceless institution with little connection to people in areas such as Waterford.
It can seem as though the EU is working on behalf of bankers and businessmen in the likes of Paris and Frankfurt and this perceived disconnect was one of the central topics during debates surrounding the Brexit issue.
During a recent visit to Strasbourg, I had the opportunity to meet with some of our MEPs and discuss issues relating to Waterford and the South-East region.
So, who is flying the flag for Waterford at EU level?
And what supports are being sought to help our city, county and wider South-East region to achieve their full potential?
Waterford is located in the Ireland South constituency which incorporates 10 counties.
However, from the four MEPs elected in 2014 to represent this electoral area, three are from Cork (Brian Crowley, Deirdre Clune and Liadh Ní Riada) while one is from Kerry (Sean Kelly).
Surely Waterford is at a disadvantage by not having any specific representation? And surely Cork and Kerry are enjoying a distinct advantage in terms of representation?
Not so, according to Sinn Fein’s Liadh Ní Riada who issued an assurance that she is working hard on behalf of Waterford.
“I have spent more time in Waterford than I have in my own county and that’s not one word of a lie,” she said.
In fact, Ms Ní Riada pointed out that her personal assistant hails from Waterford and that she also has a nephew living in Waterford which ensures she is a regular visitor to the county.
“You have to treat all of the counties as fairly as possible. And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t servicing the people from Wicklow to Clare and from Kerry to Wexford,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say that just because I’m from Cork it means that I ignore other counties. That’s not the way I operate and I certainly wouldn’t be doing my job if I was doing that.”
However, there are serious issues for Waterford and the South-East – a region which Ms Ní Riada acknowledged has been “bereft of jobs of investment”.
She highlighted the need for greater connectivity in the region, especially in light of the current lack of commercial routes at Waterford Airport.
Ms Ní Riada has been lobbying on behalf of the Three Sisters bid for the 2020 European Capital of Culture and says the reaction to the bid at EU level has been “very positive”.
She met with the Commissioner for Culture and Education Mr. Tibor Navracsics last week.
“He is very receptive to the Three Sisters idea,” she said.
Ms Ní Riada has also highlighted her work in fighting for the fishing industry – a sector which many rightly feel has been decimated by negative EU policies.
However, one EU initiative which has had a much more positive impact locally has been the designation of GI status for our beloved Blaa.
A geographical indication (GI) is a sign used to indicate that a product has a specific geographical origin and possesses a certain reputation or qualities due to that place of origin.
A GI typically includes the name of the place of origin.
This name can be used by all organisations from the area which manufacture a given product in a prescribed way.
Waterford’s Blaa was successful in obtaining GI status in 2013, and I spoke with Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune about the possibilities of extending GI status to other products.
“Since the Waterford Blaa secured recognised status in 2013, it has gone from a local favourite to securing lucrative contracts with airlines and can now be found in such far flung places as Abu Dhabi. The Waterford Blaa can now only be made in the Waterford region,” she explained.
The European Commission is exploring the possibility of extending GI protection to non-agricultural products at EU-level to harmonise the patchwork of laws that exist at national level.
This would relate to traditional non-agricultural products, from Carrara marble to Scottish tartans – and Waterford Crystal has also been mooted as a possible inclusion.
Deirdre Clune believes this is feasible and would present many benefits for Waterford.
“There certainly is an opportunity for Waterford Crystal,” she said.
“There is a list of products, not necessarily food products, and Waterford Crystal is one. The European Commission has identified more than 800 products EU wide that are likely to benefit from it.”
She highlighted the benefits of GI status.
“It prevents cheap imitation products trying to cash in on the popularity of a particular product,” she explained.
“In France, in certain sectors such as textile, companies estimate that the protection of non-agricultural indications could lead to an increase of up to 25 per cent in international demand. An effective EU scheme could grow brands in rural Ireland and sustain and create jobs. It will also have the added benefit of encouraging tourism by promoting particular areas of Ireland.”
These are just some of the areas in which our MEPs are working on behalf of Waterford and the South-East.
However, it would be unwise to view the EU through rose tinted glasses as there certainly are many issues which need to be addressed.
The system of moving the parliament to Strasbourg every month (dubbed the ‘travelling circus’ by some) is a perfect illustration of the bureaucracy associated with the EU.
During my visit to Strasbourg, the fall-out from Brexit was the major topic of conversation.
I had the opportunity to sit in on a press conference with the ‘man of the moment’ Nigel Farage.
Whether you agree or disagree with his views, one thing that can’t be disputed is the energy and charisma of the former UKIP leader.
It’s clear that the EU is in unchartered territory and that the Brexit divorce may drag on for some time.
In my view, it’s unjust and unfair to attempt to ‘categorise’ British voters who opted to leave the EU.
Certain sections of the media in Europe, including here in Ireland, seem intent on portraying all those who opted to vote ‘Leave’ as being xenophobic ‘Little Englanders’.
This is clearly not the case and it will be to the EU’s detriment if it buries its head in the sand and ignores the very clear message which the UK has delivered.
The EU is flawed, but now is the perfect opportunity to start afresh and implement change.
If the EU bureaucrats such as Jean Claude Junker (who famously blocked his ears when asked for his response in the wake of the Brexit result) ignore the message sent by UK voters they will do so at their peril.