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Powers of EP

Martyn Rady’s history of the Habsburgs is worth a read. It is a stretch but if the EU had a royal family, the Habsburgs would have been it. They had an identity that transcended nationality and for seven centuries tried to lead a loose confederation of European royal households, the Holy Roman Empire.

Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011) was the eldest son of the last Emperor and was described as the best Emperor that the Habsburgs never had. It was in the conclusion of Rady’s book that I discovered that Otto had been an MEP from 1979 to 1999.

In the second world war, Otto helped thousands of Austrian Jews to escape from Nazi rule and was a life-long campaigner for European unity. To the extent that he was known at all in Ireland, it was based on his shoving Ian Paisley out of the European Parliament chamber in 1988 as Paisley interrupted Pope John Paul II’s speech with cries of ‘antichrist’.

The European Parliament of today would be unrecognisable to Otto von Habsburg. 1979 was the first year of elections to the European Parliament and since then it has acquired significant additional powers. 2019 was the first year that the turnout increased at the European Parliament elections.

The Lisbon Treaty added new powers to the European Parliament that puts it on a par with the European Council as far as legislation is concerned.

At a push, the European Parliament can dismiss the entire European Commission and now the Parliament is looking at ways to increase European democracy so that people feel more connected to what goes on in Brussels through the Conference on the Future of Europe. This column is part of my effort to open the doors to events that go on in Brussels.

So why is there so little interest in the European Parliament in Ireland?

Part of it is a lack of continuity.

As a new MEP I am not alone - 61% of the current lot of MEPs are in their first term. Of the 13 Irish MEPs elected in 2019, 10 are new. Of the 13, four only came in in 2020. Myself and Deirdre Clune (both post-Brexit), Chris McManus (replacing Matt Carthy who was elected to the Dail in February) and Colm Markey (replacing Mairead McGuinness last month) were all late to the party. Deirdre has been around for a while but you get the idea.

Another issue is the way the European Parliament conducts its business.

As I mentioned in a previous column the European Parliament is different to Dail Eireann and these differences significantly reduce people’s interest in the proceedings. When I was about to give my maiden speech, I told my colleague Clare Daly that I was a bit nervous. She told me not to worry because no one would be listening!

As it happens I got a round of applause after my speech only to look around and see that the applause was coming from Clare Daly, smiling broadly.

The speaking arrangements lack any theatre. In the Dail, you are debating with the person on the other side and it is quite adversarial, similar to the Westminster model. In the European Parliament you are addressing your comments to a representative of the Commission (not exactly political adversaries) and the European Council, represented by the current rotating presidency. None of it could be described as edge of the seat stuff.

Pre-covid there was a chance in the chamber to literally raise a ‘blue card’ and occasionally this would allow the Chair to give you the floor to raise something similar to a point of order - usually to challenge a point made by a previous speaker. There was also the jauntily titled ‘catch the eye’ procedure that also opened up the possibility of a random intervention.

Nevertheless with 705 MEPs limited to making a 1 minute intervention, it is very stop-start and not for the faint-hearted.

Also there is no governing group in the European Parliament nor any official opposition. There is no questions to the leader and the plenary only meet for a few days a month unlike the weekly grilling Irish ministers are subjected to.

The European Parliament desperately needs to reform its ways so that there is greater coverage of the proceedings to match the power wielded by the MEPs. Until there is a closer link to the people, the Parliament will always be considered a second-order chamber.

But most of all, it needs to wield the power that the Treaties of the European Union confer upon it.

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