Speech to the Royal Irish Academy: ‘Outcome of the 2014 European Parliament elections: What’s different?’

28th May, 2014

‘Democracy lives in the moment and displays its strengths over time’. That is according to David Runciman, Professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, in his recent book ‘The Confidence Trap’. In this book he writes of how the very volatility of politics is a source of strength for the democratic process.

As we stand here, ready to assess the political landscape in the aftermath of the European Parliament elections, change is absolutely evident. This is what the democratic process is all about.

How we respond to this change will be the political agenda for Europe for the coming years.

The nature of these responses is already clear from the informal meeting of Heads of State or Government that took place in Brussels last night. I accompanied the Taoiseach to this dinner and saw at first hand the seriousness with which European leaders are approaching the current situation.

I want to make some overall comments about this change and our European and Irish response to it.

First, to begin with an obvious but essential point – that much of our political challenge relates to the economic crisis and broader global forces.

Second, to make some overall observations on the European Parliament results.

Finally, to emphasise Irish priorities across the coming period.


Economic Crisis & Political Consequences:
The eurozone crisis has rattled the EU to its very core. The prominence of our economic challenges in daily life and debate should not dilute our recognition of their unacceptable scale.

Within the eurozone, unemployment stands at just under 12%. In many countries, the youngest are hardest hit. Youth unemployment has reached 24% across the eurozone, with a number of countries recording rates not too far off 60%. Roughly 1.8 million jobs were lost within a single year in the EU.

The risks of a currency break up, the vista of un-controlled national defaults and the corresponding difficulty of responding to those existential crises can be too easily forgotten as we grapple with the problems of today.

But all of this is now indelibly etched into the political marrow of the people of Europe. The stress of experiencing these crises, and the misery for many of experiencing their consequences.


Global versus National:
All of this occurred against the backdrop of globalisation – of deepening interdependence between countries and across the world.

This interdependence, which accelerated during a relatively benign social and economic period, was and is the cause for much of the prosperity that Europe has secured.

However this interdependence can also trigger the greater spread of instability and risk. This is demonstrated by other phases of the economic crisis, where events and difficulties in one country had profound consequences elsewhere.

The backdrop to the new Parliament is not just the consequence of the ongoing European crisis but a response to the worries of how individuals and communities can achieve security in this world of deeper interdependence.


A New Parliament:
This is the context within which we must view the new European Parliament. A Parliament within which approximately 30% of its members are opposed to the European project. This is off a level of turnout that is remarkably static given all of the change that I earlier described. We can acknowledge a vote as a protest vote but we cannot dismiss this vote, its consequences or its motivation.

When we cease to create a space in which constructive debate about the direction in which the European Union is going, we allow spurious arguments to flourish and empty populism to triumph over political choices.

Despite the growth of these Parties, however, their goals will not easily be met. Their ideologically disparate nature poses a genuine challenge to the formation of a cohesive group within the Parliament; one that is capable of delivering any real change.

We must also be mindful of the reality that a majority of the seats that have been won are still held by the Parties, and groups, that are committed to, and strongly support, the European project. These leading mainstream, centrist groups; the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), still retain a majority of European Parliament seats.

These groups support the current levels of integration within Europe, either for pragmatic or historical reasons, and are open to the idea of increasing, or reducing, that integration within an EU framework in the future.


Some of the motivations of this vote are described in recent work by the Pew Research Centre.

The Centre surveyed seven Member States; among them Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Spain, Poland and Greece. While it does not include all countries, it is a representative sample. It found that, on balance, those polled believed EU membership to be a positive thing.

A desire to retain the euro, which many viewed as a significant contributor to past events, was also expressed by large majorities. This suggests that an appreciation still exists for a response to issues that affect us all on a level that includes us all.

The view that European economic integration strengthens national economies was also on the rise, increasing by 12% this year compared to last.

We must be mindful of where people’s concerns lie.

The Pew survey found that 71% of those polled felt their voice does not count in the EU. And just 22% said they are satisfied with the way things are going in their country.

So our response in the coming months and years to the outcome of these elections is crucial. I believe this response must have three elements; of tone, of process and of policy.


Ireland has identified clear policy priorities for responding to these political and economic challenges. All European bodies have a crucial role to play in delivering these priorities.

First, we must remain focused on job creation and economic growth.

Getting people back to work so that they can maintain a good standard of living and play their part in our economic recovery is essential. We can do this through our support for the deepening of the Single Market, which gives us access to an export market of 500 million people.

The creation of a robust banking union and making greater use of the European Investment Bank are all essential elements in enabling investment to support job creation.

Second, the maintenance of a strong and independent Commission will ensure a level playing field for all Members States, big and small.

By maintaining the Community Method and the Commission’s right to initiate legislation, small countries like Ireland will retain a strong voice in Europe. This gives us the best possible opportunity to advance our national interests.

And finally, by putting eurozone governance structures in place to ensure that Member States remain on the right path, socially and economically, we can ensure that the mistakes of the past are never again repeated.

The European Semester process, in which Ireland is included for the first time this year, will ensure that the hard won progress we have made in recent years is not lost. I referred to the role of interdependence in sharing both prosperity and risk. The Semester offers the best way of securing a shared future.


As the Heads of State or Government stated, following their meeting last night, the results of the European Parliament elections invite us to reflect on the way the European Union functions and how it is perceived; undoubtedly there were some strong messages that we need to heed.

President Von Rompuy will begin consultations regarding the next Commission President with the Parliament once the Presidents of the new political groupings have been elected.

The European Council will also, in the months ahead, discuss the future priorities and strategic agenda for the EU – including a more developed Economic and Monetary Union and preserving the Union’s key freedoms.


The results of the European elections may have seen a shift in the composition of the Parliament to include those individual MEPs and wider political movements which would rather see the EU unwound, reverting to a Europe in which each country would fend for itself.

This is the result of a democratic process and is a clear signal from the citizens of Europe that the EU can do better. Those of us who believe passionately in the European project – in all it has achieved and in what it can yet achieve – need to step up to this new challenge and to defend what we have worked for.

We need to engage with all our new MEPs, irrespective of their motivations, and to work with them to ensure that though the bricks and mortar of the Union might be reordered, that the foundations are not removed.

In doing so, we need to summon the same fervour, the same passion and the same commitment to our cause as those who feel differently. We need to show our people why we believe in the EU and why they should also. I am committed to this. Ireland is committed to this.