European Parliament elections in Ireland
When Irish voters go to the polls for the European Parliament elections on 24 May, they will do so in numbers exceeding many other Member States. Irish turnout is likely to once again be well above the European Union (EU) average – perhaps by ten percent or more, as it was in the past three European elections.
But does this imply an electorate deeply engaged with the European project and seized of the important role of the Parliament? The truth may be rather more prosaic: in Ireland, the European elections coincide with the local ones, and the issues driving voters to the ballot boxes are more likely to be roads, schools, hospitals, the homelessness crisis or, from time to time, the desire to give an incumbent government a mid-term reminder of who their ultimate employers are.
"The linkages between European, national and local issues, particularly with respect to the role of the Parliament and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), remain an abstract concept for many."
Irish perceptions of the EU are exceptionally positive, but voters here are equally as likely to express apathy towards the European Parliament elections as their counterparts in other Member States. The linkages between European, national and local issues, particularly with respect to the role of the Parliament and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), remain an abstract concept for many. Those European issues that do enter the public debate are traditionally related to more general Irish concerns of the day, such as regional investment, climate change, employment and, unavoidably, the issue of a European army and Irish neutrality.
What are the issues?
The 2019 campaign trail has differed from previous ones in one significant way, however, as Brexit continues to cast its unwelcome shadow over the Irish political landscape.
Over the past three years, the United Kingdom’s (UK) withdrawal from the EU has preoccupied Ireland more than any other EU27 state. But, far from the ‘domino effect’ of further EU departures that some in the UK wished for, the prolonged debate over Brexit in Ireland, in tandem with the chaos it has engendered in UK politics, has done the opposite: Irish positive perceptions of the EU now stand at a record 92%. Meanwhile, public understanding of the role of the EU in Ireland and Northern Ireland has arguably also reached its zenith.
The awareness of Brexit among the general public has made it an effective hook for the mainstream candidates to engage voters on otherwise arcane European issues, and also to emphasise their European credentials. A small number of marginal independent candidates – running on anti-immigration platforms – have also attempted to cast Brexit and the end of free movement to the UK, as a harbinger of increased migration to Ireland. Migration is not a readily politicised issue in Ireland, however, and these efforts have not gained significant traction with voters.
"The mainstream candidates from the liberal-conservative Fine Gael and the conservative Fianna Fail have emphasised the need for deeper engagement with the EU."
A further theme emerging from the Brexit debate is that of Irish influence in the EU after the departure of its key ally, and what return, if any, the other Member States may expect for the solidarity they have shown to Ireland in the course of the negotiations. The mainstream candidates from the liberal-conservative Fine Gael (aligned in the European Parliament with the European People’s Party – EPP) and the conservative Fianna Fail (aligned with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – ALDE) have emphasised the need for deeper engagement with the EU, but also the need for alliance-building by Ireland in a post-Brexit EU, in order for the country to better protect its interests.
One such interest, of course, is taxation. Though the Irish corporate tax system has attracted negative commentary from some of Ireland’s European partners – and was recently the subject of criticism by the European Parliament – it has not been a significant feature of the election campaign. The Irish corporate tax rate has been a major factor in attracting the foreign multinationals which now employ up to ten percent of the Irish workforce, and it is unlikely that any of the parties would be eager to disturb the status quo in this regard. So, while there are apparent differences of opinion between parties and candidates – for example the social democratic Sinn Fein’s (aligned with the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left – GUE/NGL) calls for increased tax transparency – there is unanimity on one point: There can be no ceding of national competence in this area to the EU.
Climate change has also been a topic of broad agreement in the election campaign to date, after Ireland became the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency in early May. This has greatly influenced the conversation at national level, and whichever candidates ultimately take their seats in Brussels in July, it is likely that they will have been elected on the back of a pledge to do more to combat climate change.
"The rhetoric of a European Army has been a potent weapon in EU referendum campaigns and elections in Ireland."
Then there is the evergreen issue of the European army. Public opinion in Ireland is positively disposed to greater involvement in EU defence cooperation, such as PESCO[i], but remains hostile to any threats to the longstanding Irish position of military non-alignment. Indeed, the rhetoric of a European Army has been a potent weapon in EU referendum campaigns and elections in Ireland. In this regard, some of the recent language from senior figures in Brussels, including Commission President Juncker, has served only to feed into the narrative of the euro-critical elements of Irish politics.
Where does all of this leave us? In terms of the result, polls indicate that we are unlikely to see seismic shifts in the Irish representation in the European Parliament, with Fine Gael (EPP) and Sinn Fein (GUE/NGL) once again returning candidates, and Fianna Fail (ALDE) likely to make a comeback following their poor showing in 2014. The remaining seats seem likely to be occupied by independents elected on a variety of platforms.
Of course, the final shape of the Irish representation in the Parliament brings us back to the issue of Brexit, and begs the question of when, or perhaps even whether, Ireland will receive its ‘Brexit dividend’ of two extra MEPs.
[i] PESCO refers to the Permanent Structured Cooperation in the area of security and defense policy of currently 25 EU Member States, which was activated in December 2017.