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Countdown starts on EU election as MEPs race to finish new laws

One year out from voting, the pressure is on to get through legislation before MEPs’ focus starts to ‘wander’ back to their constituencies.

“PEOPLE’S MINDS ARE beginning to wander back towards their constituencies.”

When the dates for the next EU elections – 6 to 9 June 2024 – were officially announced a fortnight ago, the pulses of MEPs from around the continent quickened.

Their current term, which started in 2019, has been a turbulent one, dominated by a series of crises in Brexit, Covid-19, and Russia’s war on Ukraine, as well as a growing attention to the threats posed by climate change.

There’s still just over a year to go before voters are asked to head to the ballot boxes, but in Brussels, the prospect of an upcoming election is already piling on the pressure to get through outstanding legislation quickly before parliamentarians step out of the hemicycle and onto the campaign trail.

For Ireland, it’s expected that this election will come with an additional MEP seat, increasing the roster from 13 to 14, and that the current voting boundaries may be redrawn as the Electoral Commission carries out an extensive constituency review for Dáil and European elections. 

‘Anything that isn’t almost finalised this year probably won’t be done at all’

Legislation moves slowly in the European Union.

The European Commission holds the power to propose legislation, which is then considered by the EU Council (made up of leaders from member states) and the European Parliament. The parliament’s process involves putting proposals before committees of MEPs who debate and negotiate a version of the policy to be voted on in a plenary session, where more amendments can be raised and voted on.

That means that if legislation is to be agreed before the election, it needs to be tabled imminently. The time between now and then will be spent “trying to wrap up as much as can be done” while there’s still time, one Commission official said.

The Journal spoke to several Irish MEPs in Brussels in recent days about how the tone in the parliament has shifted since the election dates were confirmed.

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher said that “people’s minds are beginning to wander back towards their constituencies – you can just sense that a little bit”.

“I think the big difficulty will be taking big files. We all take legislative files. Taking a big file between now and the election can be problematic, particularly with our system of elections at home, because you need to be present and visible. That is an issue,” he said.

You can sense there’s not as many hands up for files as there would have been at the start of the mandate.

“Even the Commission is trying to push all of its legislative proposals out now so they can get them out and get them enacted in advance of there being a change of Commission [around November 2024]. But we’re still here all the time.”

Similarly, Fine Gael’s Seán Kelly said that “anything that basically isn’t almost finalised by the end of this year probably won’t be done at all”.

Of 130 pieces of legislation identified as the EU’s priorities for 2023 and 2024, just 10 are considered fully completed and a further 11 are expected to be completed soon, leaving more than 100 files that still to be significantly progressed.

Proposed legislation that remains in the early stages include a revised animal welfare law; a strategy to eradicate human trafficking; a directive to reduce false claims about environmental sustainability or ‘greenwashing’; and a framework for improving access between EU and third-party countries to information for countering shared security threats.

Green MEP Grace O’Sullivan said that the election date announcement brought into focus the work that remains to be done on important legislation even as members turn their attention to their potential bids for re-election.

“It’s extraordinary to see when a date was announced that it focuses minds. Members who are here in the European parliament are working to decide whether they’ll run again. In my case, the Green Party always has a democratic process as to who their candidate will be, so it’s not a given that I would be that candidate, but I do feel that I still have a lot of work to do here in Europe and I would be happy to serve another term,” she said.

“In the meantime, no more as you focus your mind down to June 2024, also for me, I focus my mind on the day-to-day legislation we’re working on and keeping the energy up so that we don’t lose sight and we don’t lose time.

She cited the proposed Nature Restoration Law and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive as examples of legislation that “we have to make sure that we get that through in this mandate”.

“From what I understand, as we come towards the end of 2023 and move into 2024, the Commission, parliamentarians, Council, everyone will start to focus on the election,” she said.

“I want to try to squeeze as much as I can out of this mandate and make sure that I get the best legislation through with the best objective pathways to the bitter end. If I get the support from the Green Party and the members to run again, then in the last possible stage, use my energy for going into an election, but for the moment, really focus hard on trying to get good legislation through.”

An extra seat to fill

It’s not so long ago that Ireland’s MEP quotient was bumped from 11 to 13 when MEPs from the UK left their seats in early 2020 as the country officially departed the bloc.

Nonetheless, it’s been anticipated for a while now that changes in population levels across member states will mean that Ireland will gain another seat in the parliament in the next election.

Newly confirmed Census figures that show the population stood at 5.1 million in April 2022 – an 8% increase since 2016 and the first time in 171 years that the number surpassed five million – make that ever-more likely.

At the same time, the Electoral Commission is considering where constituency lines will be drawn as it reviews the voting boundaries for both Dáil and European elections.

Currently, there are three Irish constituencies in EU elections: Dublin, Midlands-North-West (Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, and Westmeath) and the South (Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Laois, Limerick, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, and Wicklow).

The constituencies have shifted somewhat over the years, with MEPs originally spread across four constituencies from the 1970s until 2009 when the system changed to the current three. More recent adjustments have included moving Clare, Laois and Offaly into the South.

The Electoral Commission invited public submissions to the Constituency Review and received responses from members of the public, political parties and elected officials, including two MEPs: Fianna Fáil’s Barry Andrews and Fine Gael’s Seán Kelly.

Additionally, Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe told The Journal that he would “love to see a single constituency for the Irish state but I don’t think that’s going to happen”.

“I think we have to respect geographical boundaries. I think Dublin should continue as one entity and we’ll await the Electoral Commission’s report on this. People are saying that Laois and Offaly might move to the Midlands-North- West, though I really don’t know what may or may not happen there,” Cuffe said. 

Andrews proposed replacing the Dublin constituency with a new North East Leinster constituency that would include Kildare, Meath and Louth together with the capital.

Speaking in Brussels, Andrews said there is “no logic” to the existing Midlands-North-West constituency.

“What’s now called Midlands-North-West includes Louth, which is neither in the midlands nor in the north nor in the west. Louth is in the same constituency as Killybegs, the Aran Islands,  and Achill Island,” he said.

Many of the people who work in Dublin live in the commuter belt in Meath, Kildare and Louth. From a planning point of view, whether it’s transport, water or any number of energy issues, there’s a logic to a North East Leinster configuration.

“I’m not wedded to the idea of it being all three of those counties added in and there may be a difficulty in terms of numbers, but I think there is a logic to an extended constituency that includes those people that are not just living in Dublin, but people who work in Dublin and it makes sense from a public policy and strategic planning point of view.”

Meanwhile, Seán Kelly’s submission was concerned with keeping Clare as part of the South constituency.

“Clare was outside of Munster when I was elected first. Munster is unique and we know from the Munster hurling championships that Clare is an essential part of it,” Kelly said in Brussels this week.

“Clare always said to me they wanted to be in Munster at all costs, so I think that point should be made because when the boundary commission are looking at things, they have to take into account what people actually want, rather than draw lines based on figures,” he said.

“I don’t really mind if they want to put another county in, that’s grand, but it all depends at the same time whether we get an extra MEP or two.”

Voting for Ireland’s 2024-2029 MEPs is due to take place in June 2024 alongside voting for local city and county councils.

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