With new power for European Parliament comes scrutiny

Political groups will be judged by whether or not they deliver on promises

Nessa Childers, whose resignation from Labour left her position in the S&D group untenable last year, has rejoined the fold. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Nessa Childers, whose resignation from Labour left her position in the S&D group untenable last year, has rejoined the fold. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 01:00

As they took their seats in the European Parliament this week, the 751 MEPs elected in the 2014 elections had reasons to feel optimistic. After five years of pleading to be taken seriously, particularly since gaining enhanced powers under the Lisbon treaty, parliament won a key victory in the EU inter-institutional power game last week as Jean-Claude Juncker was nominated president of the European Commission.

Boosted by the success of the Spitzenkandidat experiment, there was much talk this week in Strasbourg of the parliament’s democratic credentials. “People must believe that the European Parliament is there for them, to protect them,” Martin Schulz declaimed, as he was re-elected president of the parliament in a secret ballot.

“This parliament is the heart of European democracy. The role our colleagues take at a national level is our role at a European level.”

It will now fall to the parliament, including the 11 Irish MEPs, to prove to voters that they are indeed “there for them” and that parliament is the institution best-placed to represent the interests of the citizens.

As is the case across Europe, the political hue of Ireland’s returning MEPs has changed since the last poll.

Retained share

Fine Gael is the only party to have retained its share of MEPs, returning four in May’s election, with Deirdre Clune and Brian Hayes effectively replacing Jim Higgins and Gay Mitchell, who retired.

Fianna Fáil lost two of its three MEPs, following the decision of Liam Aylward not to run and Pat the Cope Gallagher’s failure to win a seat. The defection of Brian Crowley to the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) group is a serious blow to Fianna Fáil’s links with liberal group Alde, with party leader Micheál Martin travelling to Brussels last week for Alde’s pre-summit meeting.

Ireland again has three Independent MEPs in this parliament – Marian Harkin, Luke “Ming” Flanagan and Nessa Childers. But it is the rise of Sinn Féin and demise of Labour that represents the most substantive change in Ireland’s representation. From having no MEPs in the Republic, Sinn Féin has returned an MEP in each of the three constituencies.

Despite polling strongly, Lynn Boylan, Liadh Ní Ríada and Matt Carthy have no national parliamentary experience. Nonetheless, Sinn Féin has maintained a strong presence in Brussels since the tenure of Mary-Lou Mc Donald, working closely with Northern Ireland MEP Martina Anderson.

Labour failure

The failure of Labour – who returned three MEPs in 2009, before Childers’s resignation last year – to return an MEP has left the party without a presence in Europe.

Nessa Childers, whose resignation from Labour left her position in the S&D group untenable last year, has rejoined the fold, having held discussions with other groups such as the Greens. Childers is Ireland’s only representative in the S&D group, the second- largest in parliament.

This is significant. The S&D group has already positioned itself as the group that will fight for further flexibility in EU budget rules. Following a pre-summit meeting last week S&D leaders pledged to support Juncker as commission president only if he respected a “programme for change” that included “a fundamental policy shift to end the austerity-only policy ruling in Europe, investment in growth and jobs, and a special focus on the fight against the dramatically high level of youth unemployment.”

Matteo Renzi’s Democratic party is the largest in the group, with Italian socialists heading both the S&D group itself and the influential Econ committee.

In contrast, the EPP’s new chairman Manfred Weber did nothing for his party’s reputation as the centre-right defender of austerity.

The German CSU member reiterated the German line that flexibility is already built into EU budget rules, explicitly criticising France for already missing budget targets. How Fine Gael’s four MEPs will fit into this economic agenda will be interesting.

In reality, much of the austerity versus flexibility is political posturing, with the largest groups likely to reach consensus on most matters. Ironically, the success of anti- EU parties has pushed the mainstream political groups closer together. Already the EPP, S&D and Alde have agreed to form a stable majority in the parliament.

The central question for citizens will be whether the political groups live up to their political promises. Will the S&D group, for example, deliver on their promise not to “sign a blank cheque” by backing Juncker? Europe’s voters are waiting.

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