“Ireland took the bullet for the EU” over the collapse of the continent’s economic and banking institutions, and now “it’s pay back time”, as younger generations should not have to face a future of “austerity in perpetuity”.
This is the view of Labour’s Lorraine Higgins, the Athenry based senator who is seeking one of the four seats in the Midlands-North-West constituency in next month’s EU Parliament elections.
Sen Higgins is one of only two Galwegians in a constituency that is home to such veteran MEPs as Fianna Fáil’s Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, Independent Marian Harkin, and Fine Gael’s Jim Higgins and Mairead McGuinness. She must also face the challenge of one of the Dáil’s most colourful and controversial deputies, Luke Ming Flanagan.
Taken altogether, winning a seat is a tough ask for a first time EU election candidate and the youngest candidate in the race, but Sen Higgins is not lacking determination. “I believe I can win a seat,” she declares during our Monday morning interview, “but we know we are fighting for the last seat.”
Midlands-North-West covers the disparate areas of Connacht, the three Ulster counties in the Republic, and the northern half of Leinster. Against the sitting MEPs and the strong challenge of Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy, Sen Higgins needs to poll close to 20 per cent to take that final seat.
“There were 115,000 people who voted Labour in the last election across the counties of Midlands- North-West,” she says. “It’s also a constituency with Labour heartlands like Galway city, Louth, Meath, and Kildare. To win a seat I just need to get 60 per cent of those votes.”
Recent polls showing Labour at eight per cent nationally is “disappointing”, the senator acknowledges, but she also sees it as a spur to “get out there, work hard, and get the message across”, for “when your name is on the ballot paper, and people recognise it, that gives you a boost”, and in an election, transfers are key.
Why Europe though? Given Sen Higgins’ elevation to Seanad Éireann after the 2011 General Election and her positioning to become Labour’s chief candidate in Galway East in 2016, opting for the potential wilderness of the EU Parliament seems a strange choice.
“I’m running because the EU is incredibly relevant to our daily lives,” Sen Higgins says, “be it with the economy and the bailouts, and with issues such as cutting turf, having a septic tank, and with the recent flooding.
“I’m also the youngest candidate in the race. It’s important people of my generation, who are saddled with the debts of the EU, are represented in the EU. The EU Parliament has for too long been used as a retirement ground for people in the twilight of their political career. It’s time we change that.”
‘Pay back time’
Economic recovery, youth unemployment, and bank legacy debt are the three main platforms of Sen Higgins’ election campaign. Yet these three issues appear more relevant for national government and the Oireachtas, than the EU?
“I disagree,” says Sen Higgins, who believes they are interlinked. “Germany has only finished paying its war reparations last year and as regards Irish bank legacy debt, I don’t want to see my generation and the next generation saddled with that for decades.”
Few would disagree, but Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and one of the most powerful figures in the EU, is committed to the austerity agenda, and in the Fine Gael leadership and An Taoiseach Enda Kenny (who are fellow members of the European People’s Party ) she has staunch allies. At home and abroad then, Ireland - despite recent claims of the beginnings of an economic recovery - looks set to endure more austerity and the further squeezing of money from already hard pressed tax- payers.
“The EEP are hell-bent on austerity,” Sen Higgins acknowledges,” but that is not the grouping I will be a member of. I will be in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. It is set to become the largest group in the Parliament, which could change thinking in the EU. If we can deliver anything, it will be through the PASD leader Martin Schultz becoming leader of the Parliament, that’s why we need MEPs in Brussels, to form alliances and build relationships with key figures.”
In discussions on the EU, the question regularly comes up, ‘Does the EU/IMF/ECB care about how ordinary people have suffered during the recession?’ At best, the likely answer is ‘No’.
“I talk to friends in Germany, and no one there knows what Irish people have had to endure over the past five years,” says Sen Higgins. “Existing MEPs have not done anything to explain our situation. We need to have MEPs that will explain our situation and work to get rid of the bank legacy debt. We took the bullet for Europe when the banks collapsed, we endured through that, but now it’s pay back time. We need economics that will incentivise spending, investment in new businesses and entrepreneurs, end the scourge of 25 per cent youth unemployment, and give people the encouragement to spend again. That assistance can come from Europe.”
Are MEPs powerless?
The EU though is an unwieldy beast. It is celebrated for giving Europe more than a half-century of political stability following two world wars, yet its flaws range from a love of bureaucracy and red tape to the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU Parliament and the EU’s governing structures. As The Daily Mail’s Simon Heffer put it recently: “The EU Parliament is not a parliament at all, it’s a toothless committee. It’s actually got less power than the House of Lords.”
This is underlined by the fact MEPs cannot propose, initiate, or repeal legislation. This is a serious concern, especially when 65 per cent of our laws now come from Brussels.
“I disagree that the Parliament is toothless,” says Sen Higgins. “Under the Lisbon Treaty the powers of MEPs have expanded to take in debates on the EU budget and taking part in these debates is a pathway to change legislation.
“However in Ireland we need to debate how the EU impacts on our laws and lives. In France and Spain EU laws are discussed and adapted to suit those countries. Here, we just transpose them onto our own laws. But for people with septic tanks, or people told they cannot cut bog, that is a problem and there is a need to examine the legislation that comes from Europe, and to have MEPs that will raise the difficulties that some of this legislation causes, and we need MEPs from west of the Shannon to do this, and ensure our representatives are not all from Leinster.”
A further problem for MEPs remain that on average, over their five year term, only 60 minutes is spent speaking in parliament. Should she be elected, it will be hard for Sen Higgins to get her voice heard.
“There are other ways besides the EU parliament,” she says, “such as through the committees and being appointed a rapporteur, where you do field work and reports for committees and help devise policy. A lot of the work you do as an MEP does not always involve the floor of the parliament.”