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# influencers
MEPs, assemble: Could Ireland's MEPs do more to influence Europe?
How do we punch above our weight on the European stage? Get into groupings, get specialised and stick around, writes CJ McKinney.

THERE ARE FEW obvious benefits to Brexit so far, but Ireland has done well out of it in one respect: extra Members of the European Parliament. The two bonus MEPs assigned to Ireland out of the UK’s allocation – more than any other small or medium-sized country – took the Irish contingent to 13.

There are 705 MEPs in total, so there are obvious limits to what 1.8% of them can achieve in terms of advancing our national interests. But Ireland manages to punch above its weight in lots of situations, despite being a tiny country on the global stage.

So are our MEPs a set of Katie Taylors – or just a bunch of lightweights?

Who are Ireland’s MEPs?

About half of us turned out in 2019 to elect the 13: five Fine Gael, two Fianna Fáil, two Green, three independents and one Sinn Féin.

What matters at the European Parliament, though, is how the MEPs slot into the main political groupings that call the shots. These are pan-European alliances of national political parties, organised along ideological lines.

The Fine Gael contingent is part of the centre-right European People’s Party, or EPP, the biggest group. Fianna Fáil are in the liberal Renew Europe, the third biggest. The Greens caucus with the Greens and the other four with the Left group. There are no Irish MEPs in the second-biggest group, the centre-left S&D (Socialist & Democrats).

20211028PHT16102_original European Parliament European Parliament

Are Irish MEPs a big deal?

The European Parliament doesn’t work like the Dáil or House of Commons. There’s no government and no opposition. Like the EU as a whole, finalising legislation is a constant process of negotiation and coalition-building, rather than a majority group ramming through a set programme. A lot of the legwork is done in powerful committees which come up with text for sign-off by the full Parliament.

“There’s more of a kind of a collaborative, consensus-oriented approach in the European Parliament, working in those committees,” says Dr Rory Costello, a political scientist at the University of Limerick.

“It’s possible to work with people from other parties and reach compromises”.

The final vote on a bill by the full Parliament is often just to nod through the committee decision: “usually what happens in the committee is what ultimately the Parliament will decide”.

Within the committees, the work is delegated further to an individual MEP called a rapporteur.

The rapporteur makes the running on whatever the particular issue is: for example, regulating the internet (Christel Schaldemose of Denmark), reforms to carbon trading (Peter Liese of Germany) or standardising phone chargers (Alex Agius Saliba of Malta).

All this means that the MEPs who run the committees and political groups, or get to be rapporteurs on important bills, are the ones who matter.

These sorts of considerations are reflected in a VoteWatch Europe ranking of the most politically influential MEPs. Frances Fitzgerald is the only Irish MEP in the top 100 while Irish MEPs are ranked in the bottom half (15 out of 27) in terms of their collective influence.

No Irish MEP currently has a senior committee position, major rapporteurship or other important institutional job (such as vice-president of the Parliament, as Fine Gael’s Mairead McGuinness used to be). Fitzgerald is one of the EPP’s ten vice-presidents, though, which probably accounts for her place in the top 100.

It’s true that league tables like this are a blunt instrument. As Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy complained when RTÉ covered a previous ranking, “it’s basically an indication of who is most caught up in the European Parliament bubble”.

There’s no one single way of being an effective politician: some might want to use their platform to advocate for ideas rather than horsetrade in committees.

Others might argue that being in the European Parliament bubble is what Members of the European Parliament are for. A country’s MEPs are a conduit for that country’s national interests. The more influential the slate of MEPs within the institution, the more likely it is that EU laws will turn out the way Ireland would prefer them.

How could Irish MEPs get more of a say?

Three themes crop up time and again in conversations about influence in the European Parliament: expertise, seniority and choice of political group.

Pick the right political group

The plum committee positions are divvied up among the different alliances according to how many seats they have. “Every group has so many places,” explains Marian Harkin, who was an MEP for 15 years. “So if your group decides that because of the numbers you become a chair of a committee, or a vice-president of the Parliament, then it’s pretty automatic.”

Within the groups, the arrangements for the very top positions – committee chair – often favour the largest national delegations. The upshot is that committee chairs are invariably from big countries and belong to one of the big groups: a German MEP in the EPP, for instance.

Irish MEPs aren’t necessarily going to get a look-in there. But they could get to be vice-chair, which is also an important post. Denmark, with a similar number of MEPs to us, has four or five of these positions to Ireland’s zero.

If you were trying to improve on that, the optimal way in theory would be for all Irish MEPs to cram themselves into one of the big groups, irrespective of their domestic political party. It’s obviously not realistic to achieve 100% concentration, but there is room for tactical caucusing: Harkin, an independent, recalls teaming up with Fianna Fail in the liberal group to try to get Pat “the Cope” Gallagher a spot as vice-chair of the fisheries committee.

Failing that, you would at least want them all in one or other of the big groups. That isn’t the case at the moment. With four of the 13 in the marginal Left group, the others split across four different group and none at all in the major S&D alliance, Irish MEPs as a body aren’t particularly well placed to benefit from the divvy-up of jobs.

Costello says:

We’re definitely underrepresented in some of the big-hitting groups, and that’s where you need to be to get the plum posts in the European Parliament.

There’s precedent for Irish parties switching their group. Fianna Fail used to be in a small, conservative group before moving to a bigger, more centrist and more influential alliance in 2009.

“From the Fianna Fail point of view, it’s a really, really good alignment because we were very much adrift in the wilderness of the European Parliament, with various obscure and ineffective groups,” Barry Andrews tells The Journal. “Now we’re aligned in the centre of the political spectrum.”

Send over more nerds

Membership of a major political group doesn’t guarantee success. Being an expert in a particular field helps too. Research shows that “people who have expertise in a particular area are more likely to first of all sit on the committee but also to get rapporteurships on high-profile issues,” Costello says. “For example, farmers on the agriculture committee or economists on the finance committee”.

The system for deciding which group gets to pick the rapporteur for a given brief – some being more important than others – also rewards expertise.

Other member states may have an advantage here, at least when it comes to formal qualifications. Around one third of all MEPs used to be in academia, according to VoteWatch Europe; credentials makes it easier to demonstrate expertise. The Irish delegation is a bit light on professors.

That may be down to how different countries pick their MEPs. Countries such as France and Germany use a list system, where you essentially cast a vote for the party rather than the individual. Getting on the list means impressing the party leadership rather than voters, so you can be selected on the strength of your PhD rather than your winning personality.

Costello notes:

The Irish system does tend to reward grafters who have a presence on the ground, who put in the hours knocking on doors and doing constituency clinics. In other systems, which are more party-centric, you get ahead by being nominated by the party hierarchy. You don’t have to necessarily have any relationship with constituents.

There’s a lot to like about politicians being connected to their voters, of course. “You’ll get more professors and academics in those types of list delegations, but there are benefits to having direct elections,” Andrews argues.

“We’re falling down with technocrats in the European Commission and various advisors and councils. Sometimes you need people who are connected to political realities, and the democratic scrutiny that direct election creates strengthens democracy.”

Stick around longer

The Fianna Fáil man reckons that the number one explanation for Irish MEPs not getting the plum jobs is that they tend not to be there long enough. “I think the allocation of responsibilities in the European Parliament rewards longevity, rather than necessarily expertise all the time,” Andrews says. Despite being the former chief executive of international development charity GOAL, he recently lost out on a position in the international development committee.

In Ireland, as in many but not all other countries, being an MEP tends to be seen as a stepping stone towards a domestic political career. Many senior Irish politicians served only short stints as an MEP, such as Mary Lou McDonald (2004-2009), Simon Coveney (2004-2007) and Alan Kelly (2009-2011). “It’s sort of seen as a launch pad, rather than an end in itself,” says Andrews.

Newer MEPs can potentially achieve seniority faster if they’re seen as a heavy hitter. Guy Verhofstadt was Prime Minister of Belgium before entering the European Parliament. Ireland has sent ex-ministers in the past, but arguably often to put their feet up rather than spearhead major initiatives.

“You do get more senior politicians standing in European Parliament elections in other countries compared to Ireland, where it’s usually a kind of a second-chance saloon or a way of bringing politicians up with a view to running in the Dáil in future,” Costello notes.

Harkin, who was there between 2004 and 2019 before returning to the Dáil, says length of service also helps in terms of less formal influence. She recalls trying to get a bill before the finance committee changed so that it wouldn’t hit credit unions, which don’t exist in most European countries.

She notes:

I wasn’t on that committee at the time, so how was I going to influence what they did? Wasn’t I lucky: the chair of that committee was a colleague of mine in the [liberal] group, a British Lib Dem. I knew her well, and she knew what credit unions were.

Harkin was able to get an amendment into the committee exempting credit unions; building up those sort of relationships takes time, she points out.

Andrews notes that most of Ireland’s current MEPs are, like him, in their first term. Of the MEPs in the mainstream political groups that influence policy and legislation, only two – Deirdre Clune and Seán Kelly – were there before, along with Luke Ming Flanagan of the Left group. In those circumstances, “you can see how our influence at the European Parliament is probably not as great as it could be”.

Could we all do better?

It’s not that MEPs are useless if they don’t have one of these big jobs. Harkin was never high up in any committee, but has fond memories of successfully pressing for EU legislation on carers’ leave. When it first started, “most people thought we had mispelled the word ‘career’. It took the first five years to get that word ‘carer’ into people’s consciousness.”

Andrews works on Brexit and international development issues; the Parliament recently approved his report on how to meet the UN Sustainable Development goals. You won’t, he reflects, see any Irish press covering of worthy but unexciting stuff like that. (On the same day that report was adopted, certain Irish MEPs were instead in the news for having consistently voted against resolutions critical of Russia.)

“There’s more of a media focus on national politics across all countries, but the imbalance is particularly stark in the Irish context,” Costello thinks. You can hardly blame the media, in a sense: so much of the European Parliament’s work takes place behind closed doors, and fiery floor debates are rare. That staid image belies the fact that, as both its own powers and those of the EU have grown over the years, the European Parliament now has serious influence over our everyday lives.

As Andrews puts it: “70% of our laws come from Europe, but 80% of our drama comes from the Dáil.”

With limited information on what the Parliament is up to, it’s understandable that people may vote to give interesting candidates a platform rather than for what they might achieve in the bowels of some committee in Brussels or Strasbourg. If voters want to maximise the influence of the green jersey, though, we might want to think more seriously about who to send over next time.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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