The Irish public perception of Europe has been seriously challenged in recent times. Set against the backdrop of the economic malaise that has overshadowed this country since 2008, there has been much negative media coverage of Europe and public dissatisfaction at the perceived slow pace of the response to our economic woes.
The goal of European Movement Ireland is to develop the connection between all sectors of Irish society and the European Union. Our work is aimed at ensuring the debate on EU issues in Ireland is reasoned, robust and fair. We try to provide balance in the debate – something that has been gradually edged out of EU discourse in Ireland over the past five years.
To provide this balance and to mark Europe Week 2013, tomorrow we are launching our third annual accountability report . This acts an Irish-European report card, tracking and analysing key indicators including, for example, Irish ministerial attendance at European Council meetings; Oireachtas Committee agendas; and MEP attendance at the European Parliament.
The report measures the engagement of Irish public representatives and gives recommendations for improving the transparency and accountability of the Irish-EU political process.
One of the most notable findings of the Accountability Report 2012 is that average attendance by Irish Ministers at meetings of the Council of the EU in 2012 stood at 97 per cent, up 11 percentage points on the same figure for 2011. We believe this encouraging statistic shows the Government's commitment to improving Ireland's relationships, reputation and results in Europe. It is vital this engagement continues.
While it is encouraging to see that our Ministers are performing well on the European stage, it is important that engagement also takes place at national parliamentary level. Otherwise, we will continue to see the familiar problem of a lack of communication between public representatives and ordinary Irish citizens regarding European decision-making.
Communication issues are partly to blame for the common misconceptions that exist around Ireland’s relationship with the EU, but they are not the only cause. As Irish citizens, it is important we also examine our own role when it comes to discussing and debating European matters.
Contrary to the expectations of many, there is still a bedrock of support in Ireland for our membership of the EU. This is clear from the results of a Red C poll commissioned by European Movement Ireland in January to mark the start of the Irish presidency. The poll found 85 per cent of Irish people want Ireland to remain in the EU.
While we know that many people hold this positive view on a personal level, we also know from anecdotal evidence there is still a collective tendency to hold “Europe” or “Brussels” responsible for any unpopular or seemingly unfair legislative decisions. We must remember, however, that our Irish representatives have a significant role to play in the EU process, as do we – the people who elect them.
The Accountability Report 2012 is just the beginning. Although European Movement Ireland can provide the statistics, these numbers only tell part of the story. Each of us as Irish citizens must look behind these findings to understand how and why certain decisions are being taken on our behalf and why particular policies are being supported in our name at EU level. Engage with the media coverage of European issues, contribute to the European Commission's public consultations, talk to local MEPs or attend one of the regional dialogues European Movement Ireland is hosting around the country during the year.
These dialogues provide members of the public with a frank and open forum to pose questions to Ministers, European ambassadors, political and economic experts and local leaders about any national, local or EU issue. We have had excellent dialogues already in Dublin, Cork and Galway and we look forward to visiting more towns and cities in the coming months.
As EU citizens, we have the right to freely elect the public representatives of our choice. Hand in hand with this right comes the responsibility to engage with the work of the people we elect, to examine it in detail and to hold those representatives to account. And our elected representatives have the duty to communicate effectively with us – both because it is needed and because we, the Irish people, deserve no less.
With Europe Day 2013 approaching, now is a good time to start.
Noelle O'Connell is executive director of European Movement Ireland. Its Accountability Report 2012 will be launched tomorrow and will be found at europeanmovement.ie