EU election insights: A view from Ireland and Brussels

Elections to the EU Parliament have sometimes been viewed as a secondary concern in Ireland but, on this occasion, they are likely to be of far greater significance.

From an Irish perspective, the imminent departure of the UK from the European Union signals a significant change in our relations with the EU and the other member states. In the past, British and Irish interests on a range of EU matters have often aligned and previously Ireland could rely on support for its positions from a large and powerful member state. This will no longer be the case and new alliances must be forged in Europe if Ireland is to continue to make a success of its membership of the EU. The Irish MEPs elected on May 24th will play a vital role in that process. The challenge is compounded by the likelihood of significant changes to the composition of the EU Parliament following elections later this month. With populist parties potentially gaining ground right across Europe, it remains to be seen what impact this could have on the direction of policy in coming years. The election of substantial numbers of those on the fringes of political debate could affect the functioning of the EU and ultimately lead to a changed environment within which EU citizens and businesses operate within Europe.

First though, observers in Ireland will pay close attention to the results of Thursday’s local elections in England and Northern Ireland, especially keen to see whether and how the results will affect the Conservative and Labour parties and especially their ongoing negotiations on the proposed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Also, of interest are the continuing preparations in the UK for the EU Parliament elections. With UK politics increasingly polarised on the issue of Brexit, there is concern about the growing popularity of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, with some polls suggesting it could top the poll. This would likely lead to disruption in the new EU Parliament but perhaps of greater worry is the potential for a large vote in support of pro-Brexit candidates to embolden those within the UK political and media establishment calling for a no-deal Brexit.

Irish candidates

In Ireland, campaigning is well under way for the EU elections, with all candidates declared. There are thirteen seats in the new Parliament for Irish MEPs, although the last elected candidate in both Dublin and Ireland South will have to wait until Brexit is finally resolved before they will be able to take their seats. This increases the pressure on candidates in each constituency to perform well or face indefinite limbo, or worse, no seat at all in the unlikely event the UK remains in the EU. A total of fifty-nine candidates have declared across all three constituencies, with twenty-three candidates in Ireland South (five seats), nineteen in Dublin (four seats) and seventeen in Midlands North West (four seats).

Only one sitting MEP, Lynn Boylan for Sinn Féin, is contesting the election in Dublin. Major contenders to pick up seats in the constituency include Frances Fitzgerald for Fine Gael, Barry Andrews for Fianna Fáil and Clare Daly for Independents for Change. In Midlands North West, sitting MEPs Matt Cathy (Sinn Féin), Luke “Ming” Flanagan (Independent) and Mairead McGuinness (Fine Gael) are contesting, with other hopefuls including Brendan Smith, Anne Rabbitte (both Fianna Fáil) and Maria Walsh (Fine Gael). Last year’s presidential election runner-up and controversial political figure, Peter Casey, is also running in the constituency as an Independent. Ireland South has the largest field of candidates, with sitting MEPs, Deirdre Clune (Fine Gael), Sean Kelly (Fine Gael) and Liadh Ní Ríada (Sinn Féin) contesting the election. Others hoping to win a seat include Billy Kelleher and Malcolm Byrne (both Fianna Fáil). The Green Party candidate in the constituency, Grace O’Sullivan, could perform well with climate change increasingly a concern, although a win for the party would require a massive increase in the number of voters who ordinarily support the Greens. Finally, high profile Independents for Change T.D., Mick Wallace, has the potential to pick up support in his South East base but also in other areas of the constituency.

What this means for the Irish Government

Elections take up significant resources and parties and candidates are working hard to secure the greatest share of the vote and number of seats possible. While this is the norm, the outcome of these EU Parliament elections, as well as the local elections held in Ireland on the same day, have potential to be especially significant for a further reason. The confidence and supply deal with Fianna Fáil that underpins the Fine Gael government is increasingly out of favour with members of both parties and a strong result for either will likely lead to calls for a general election, with June or July touted as possible dates. In addition, the election of currently sitting T.D.s, such as Frances Fitzgerald, Billy Kelleher or Brendan Smith would upset the Dáil arithmetic and eventually necessitate by-elections. This simply adds pressure to what is already a fragile arrangement for government that many now view as approaching the end of its shelf-life.

View from Brussels

It’s not all about Brexit any more – there’s a new show in town now that campaigns for the European elections are officially in full swing. MEPs have deserted Brussels to concentrate on their campaigns back home, and the frontrunners for the EU’s top job, President of the European Commission, are taking part in a series of debates to try to win voters’ hearts and minds. Representatives from the three largest groups – Manfred Weber (EPP), Frans Timmermans (S&D) and Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), plus Ska Keller from the Greens faced off in Florence on Thursday about their visions for the future of Europe.

The biggest headline of the night was Guy Verhofstadt’s announcement that the ALDE group will dissolve following the elections and a new, global pro-European centrist group will be formed with Macron’s En Marche party. ALDE – which will lose its one sitting Irish MEP with Marian Harkin deciding not to seek re-election – has traditionally held the position of kingmaker in the European Parliament and will be keen to retain this position in light of the S&D and EPP’s expected loss of seats to populist parties. Macron’s well-documented lack of support for the Spitzenkandidat system will have played an important role in ALDE’s decision to put forward its ‘Team Europe’ of seven candidates for the top jobs instead of a single nominee for the role of President.

The discussion ran on fairly predictable lines with the biggest disagreement between candidates focusing on defence policy. The debate focused on migration, security and foreign policy, although it touched on other topics including the candidates’ plans regarding big tech businesses. Both Timmermans and Verhofstadt criticised tech giants for failing to pay sufficient taxes and it is clear that big tech companies will continue to face pressure from the next Commission. The candidates did not commit to a European digital tax, but both called for further action at European level – Timmermans said that Member States are not in a position to tackle big companies that do not pay tax, while Verhofstadt called for a single EU regulator to help address the fact that Europe had ‘missed the boat’ on digital.

Cicero’s Irish office will be turning its attention to the forthcoming European elections and will be sharing our insights weekly on a Friday in replacement to our Brexit Insights newsletter.

If you would like to know how Cicero could directly support your company with your communication requirements,
please get in touch with Aideen Ginnell at Aideen.Ginnell@cicero-group.com.

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Aideen Ginnell

Ireland Director

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