Thinking about the European Parliament elections

It is disappointing that our school system and our media spend so little time explaining how the European Union works (though this is also true of knowledge of how our policy making system works at home).

The EU has always been dominated by the governments of the member states in the Council of Ministers. Successive Treaties have increased the ‘co-decision’ powers of the European Parliament, although the trend in recent treaties has been to move power back to member states (not that you would know that from the referendum campaigns in Ireland, where both sides effectively asserted the opposite). In Treaty negotiations, every country has a veto on what can be decided by co-decision and what stays with the Council of Ministers. Ireland, disgracefully in my view, has used our veto consistently, along with the UK when they were members, to prevent any serious controls on tax evasion, tax shopping, banking and financial control, for example, against the vast majority of the EU member states.

The Commission is effectively the civil service of the EU, drafting legislation and implementing it after it is agreed by the Council of Ministers and, where relevant the Parliament. Some media (with the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press as the main but not only offenders) project a fantasy where the Commission tells Governments what to do when the reality is, of course, the opposite.


Co decision, which now prevails in most policy areas, means that the Council passes legislation and sends it to the Parliament. If the Parliament wants to amend it or reject it, there is an attempt at a mediated compromise. If that fails, the legislation is rejected.

The weakness of the European Parliament is that, like the Parliaments of large diverse countries like India, voters are distributed across many languages and political cultures. This was less of a problem in the past where most countries had the same spectrum of parties – large conservative and labour/socialist parties dominant, along with smaller groups of liberals, greens, left and right. Ireland was the main exception to this, with two conservative parties dominating and little talk of politics, as opposed to personalities, at election time. This European alignment has broken down now, with a big shift to conservative votes in national and European elections and growth of a range of parties, including most notably those growing out of the 1930s fascist tradition.

One of the strengths of the European Parliament is that it is organised along political lines, not by country. There is always pressure in Ireland, particularly from Independent Newspapers in the past, to portray issues as ‘what the EU can do for, or to, Ireland’ and to vote as a national block, usually to defend some particular business or invertor, regardless of the impact on the rest of Europe. Proinsias de Rossa used to say ‘when I go to Brussels, I never wear the green jersey’ but most Irish MEPs would be afraid to say this.


The other strength is the way it works, which is a model that the Dail could learn from.

Every proposal (except in the most extreme emergency) is referred to a committee. The committee then appoints a ‘rapporteur’ to draw up a proposal (amendments to a bill, proposals on a policy etc.). The rapporteur then works initially with representatives of the political groups on the committee and then with the whole committee to try to get consensus, or at least a majority, first in the committee and then in the plenary.

This is similar to the Oireachtas committee system, which also does good work scrutinising legislation, but in the Irish case (as in most European countries) members ultimately have to follow Government or opposition whips on the big issues.

All of this happens in the open, unlike our national system where the details are developed in private in the civil service and usually voted through by the Government majority.

The crucial thing here is that, in my view, a good MEP is one who puts serious time and thought into committee work, not one who gains dramatic headlines at home by making speeches in plenary or one who spends more time being seen in their (vast) constituencies. Unfortunately, in the Irish political culture, the latter are more likely to win votes than the former.

In the EAPN (European Anti Poverty Network) I got to know all the Irish MEPs of the time well, discussing the implications of legislation and giving grass-roots community groups a chance to discuss issues with them.

We had a general formula for regional meetings. Bring together our members and allies at local level (unemployed groups, Travellers, community development groups in the poorest urban and rural areas, refugees, lone parents, disability groups and so on). Spend the morning briefing and discussing how the EU and the Parliament works, what an MEP can or can’t do etc. Spend the afternoon facilitating discussion between MEPs or candidates and members. Some MEPs were shaken by the pressure to talk policy, rather than just cut ribbons, while others relished the interest in what they do. We used this formula around electionsand policy initiatives like the social inclusion strategy, the employment strategy, the structural funds and so on.

Groups like the EAPN could not bring any ‘blackmail’ power to bear, unlike the business or farming lobbies who could employ expensive lobbyists, pay for meals and in many famous cases bigger ‘incentives’ and pull strings with the media owners in Ireland to build up or knock down a politician. All of this is true in national politics as well, of course. We could only put our case and talk about how a particular measure would affect people in poverty, just as we did with politicians and civil servants at home. Most appreciated the information, whether it fitted their political views or not.

Our main focus was on the Employment and Social Committee, which shadowed the same committees in the Council of Ministers and the Commission, although of course we had an interest in many other committees dealing with the macro-economic issues as well. In my time, there were several Irish MEPs who stood out and would be know across Europe for their work on social issues. I could name Proinsias de Rossa and Emer Costello (and their assistant Ger Gibbons); Marian Harkin and Ciaran Cuffe. I cannot speak about the other MEPs on other committees which I did not follow so closely, so this is not a judgement on them.

I should stress that I am talking in the past tense, since I retired over 6 years ago. My successors in EAPN Ireland are keeping up the work, but of course I am giving personal impressions here and don’t represent any official view of the organisation, especially when I talk about individual MEPs.


So what does this mean for our vote in the European election?

1. See what political position a candidate is taking on European issues, left, right, green and/or different shades. Membership of a European group often tells you this, but not always. There is no group whip, and some fit into groups for convenience, not conviction;
2. See if their election leaflets or websites show any understanding of how the European Parliament works;
3. Be sceptical of candidates who run on issues appropriate to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) or local council;
4. Be even more sceptical of those who promise to ‘fight for Dublin’ or ‘fight for Ireland’ etc.. This is a version of the localist phenomenon which plagues Irish politics, with representative promising to shift resources form one county to another or even from one end of a county to another;
5. Don’t judge a candidate on whether they have been seen around the constituency for five years – this probably (though not always) implies that they are not giving enough attention to the real job (same applies to a lesser extent to national politics);
6. And in this election, beware particularly of candidates representing international groups with their roots in European fascism trying to get a foothold in Ireland through stirring up fear of foreigners, but I have posted separately about this.

Author: Robin Hanan

A lifelong activists, formerly worked for Irish Refugee Council, European Anti Poverty Network Ireland and Comhlamh. Now retired from paid work but not from life. Blogging about politics, history, books, science, walking, cycling and whatever catches my interest.