Commission brings Europe to Ireland's citizens


The vice-president of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, rattled off some important statistics in City Hall yesterday.

Some 86 per cent of EU citizens say they don’t know their rights, she said. Moreover, almost seven in 10 citizens believe their voices don’t count.

For the vastly experienced politician, this was an alien experience in Luxembourg, the EU’s smallest state, where daily contact with citizens is the natural way of doing things.

“Something that has bothered me at EU level was that we were making too many big speeches instead of going out and looking citizens in the eye and asking their opinion,” she said yesterday.

“We want to change the way we do politics. We want citizens to know who and what we are voting for in the next election.”

This is the European Year of Citizens, and to try to overcome the dominant image of remote Brussels bureaucrats, the commission has decided it will bring Europe to the citizens.

Over the year, key EU figures will hold what are called Citizens’ Dialogues in many EU states. The first was held yesterday in Dublin’s City Hall, launched by EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso, along with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanáiste Eamon Gilmore.

Some 200 citizens attended the event but they were not truly representative of the population. To attend, people had to send in an application through the offices of the European Movement. As a result, only those with an interest would be moved to apply. Hence the audience, mostly young, was predominantly middle-class, well-educated, and (on the basis of the questions asked) largely pro-EU.

There were also a number of well-known heads of prominent non-government organisations present, including Fr Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland, Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International and Hans Zomer of Dóchas.

Tight time frame

As Mr O’Gorman found when he unsuccessfully tried to follow up on a detailed question, in these shortish public meetings engagement is very difficult.

The master of ceremonies, RTÉ’s Pat Kenny, did his best to get as many questions in within a very tight time frame of less than two hours, not helped by the leaders arriving 15 minutes late.

Barroso, Kenny and Gilmore were really only there to give their imprimatur and to say it was a generally good idea. They each answered two soft questions before departing after about 10 or 15 minutes.

Luckily for the audience, Reding and the Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton, were both more than capable of dealing with some of the more challenging questions from the audience and via Twitter.

Questions covered topics such as the unfairness of the bailout; several challenges that small countries such as Ireland were not being protected from by the commission; the cost of holding EU parliament meetings in Strasbourg once a month; EU gender quotas; lumbering Ireland with the bank debt; and the poor being targeted in the last budget.

Citizens' Dialogue: What those present had to say:

Dominic Gallagher, Co Tipperary (student):

“We are in the European Youth Parliament. I thought it was very good to have the leaders in front of us and to see them physically working. I’m not so sure how effective it will be. You needed to fill out an application to be here. Generally. as you know yourself, those interested in politics came. Those who were disenfranchised and don’t care about politics aren’t here and their opionions aren’t represented.”

Bernadette Roche, Co Louth: (retired from the pulic sector):

“I was very disappointed at the ratio of time the citizens had to speak compared to the length of time that the politicians had to speak. I don’t think that augurs well for a dialogue.”

Sean Roche, Co Lough Sean Roche, Co Lough (husband of Bernadette and also retired from the public sector):

“We both worked in the public sector on EU programmes in the past. We are particularly concerned about the fact there is no trust in politicians and no trust in bankers. I’m quite disappointed that that whole aspect today of building up an EU that is respected was not really talked about too much.”

Julia Fahy, Co Donegal (student):

"I thing it was great to get the opportunity to speak to politicians and to listen to everybody's opinion.

"There were quite a lot of young people here but it's only people who would have found out about it from being involved already. That's one thing we need to improve is the inclusion of young people who feel they can't get involved because they don't have the opportunity."