My visit to the European Parliament

11th October, 2013

I have just spent the last day and a half meeting MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) in Strasbourg for first October Plenary Session of the European Parliament. (the EP also has a seat in Brussels).

Why? For the simple reason that it hugely matters to Ireland and our interests.

Two examples of this:

First – I was present for a crucial vote on a new Directive on tobacco and cigarette products. MEPs voted for 65% of cigarette packaging to be covered with warning and for additional restrictions and regulations on other cigarettes, including e-cigarettes. This was an extremely important vote on a cause which Ireland has long championed.

You might ask why is this done in the European Parliament and not Leinster House? This is due to the cross-border nature of the tobacco market. As it stretches across many countries, the European Parliament is the most effective point from which to regulate the market. All Irish MEPs voted for this legislation; indeed the vote was passed by on overwhelming majority!

Second – the Parliament is now concluding legislation on spending programmes that will fund training for unemployed young peopleacross Europe, including in Ireland. Decisions that the Parliament makes will impact on the work that we do at home to help people to gain meaningful employment.

These are real decisions, of great value to our country. There is nothing philosophical or ephemeral about these discussions. They really matter.

Much of this is due to the greater power which the Parliament acquired under the Lisbon Treaty. It now shares decision-making with the representatives of Government across many important policy areas. This, in the jargon of Union life, is known as ‘co-decision’.

During my visit to the Parliament, I met all of the Irish MEPs to discuss policy priorities for Ireland. While there is sharp political difference between the MEPs at election time they all cooperate to represent Irish interests in the Parliament; a task which they undertake with an investment of considerable time, energy and skill. We are lucky to have such a cohort in our corner in the Parliament and I am sure that we will be served equally well in the next Parliamentary term.

I also met a number of other influentional MEPs who are members of Committees which are currently discussing issues of particular interest to us; these included members from the Agriculture Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee.

I have a few other observations on the European Parliament from my trip:

– That its voting procedures are enormously effective. All votes are grouped into a particular time of the week with seconds taken for each vote. This is a favourable contrast with how long it takes in Leinster House. Though an important difference is theOpposition/Government dynamic that is absent in the European Parliament.

– That the increased power of the Parliament is clearly recognised by many. One example of this recognition is the number of lobbyists now working to influence policy development. Another example is the possibility of former Commissioners seeking election to the Parliament.

– That while this is a stronger Parliament, all of the institutional features are not immediately transferable to domestic political life. The tensions between Government and Opposition and the roles of each are a key feature of our system in Kildare Street, and othernational parliaments. This is not as potent in the European Parliament.

During my time in Strasbourg, I also took the opportunity to meet with Emily O’Reilly, the new Ombudsman for Europe (many congratulations to her again on her appointment!) and Commissioner Geoghan Quinn. Through the work they do, each plays an enormously important role in Europe and for Ireland. I will return to this in the future in another blog post.

Whilst independent of national interests, having Irish people at this level in the EU Institutions is immensly valuable; we have been very lucky in the past with the number of high calibre officials in the Parliament, Council and Commission and we are working to ensure that we can maintain this in the years ahead. More on this in another post!

I also visited our Ambassador to the Council of Europe, which is based in Strasbourg. This is an Institution which I am deeply interested in and with which Ireland has a proud history. Again, I will come back to this organisation at another point.

A lot done in a few days; a visit to the French government and then a very full 36 hours visiting a wide breadth of organisations to press the Irish cause. This is what every other EU Member State is doing and we need to do the same.