A story is told that when William Ewart Gladstone, the great 19th century Liberal Parliamentarian and prime minister was on the campaign trail, delivering one of his marathon three-hour speeches, a little girl in the crowd turned to her mother and asked, “Mummy, what is that man for?”
The mother’s reply has gone unrecorded. But there are probably many men and women who are posing their own versions of this question, asking, “What is an MEP for?” And that is to pose another – “What is the European Parliament for?”
In the forthcoming elections, voters will be casting their votes for a total of 11 MEPs. In the Midlands-North-West constituency, that includes Galway, 14 mainstream and independent party candidates are contesting four seats, from Ming Flanagan to sitting MEP Pat The Cope Gallagher.
If there is a deep-seated disenchantment with national and local politics, when it comes to the EU it is more akin to indifference. This is no criticism of MEPs themselves, most of whom try to do their best for those who have elected them. It is rather that, even after many years in the EU, many voters still do not understand what an MEP is for, nor what the nature and function of the European Parliament itself is.
There is a general impression that MEPs are in the curiously demeaning position of having responsibility without power, and that the EU Parliament is a glorified talking-shop, the chief function of which is to rubber-stamp legislation initiated by the unelected European Commission.
The European Union website makes no secret of this: “The Commission represents and upholds the interests of the EU as a whole. It oversees and implements EU policies by proposing new laws to Parliament and the Council.” This is referred to as the 'right of initiative'.
Furthermore, in the EU parliament, MEPs can only propose amendments to legislation initiated by the Commission. And when national leaders meet for European Council summits, Parliament gives its opinion on the topics on the agenda. In addition, Parliament adopts the EU’s annual budget with the Council of the European Union.
As the EU website explains, “The Commission’s departments produce a draft of the proposed new law. If at least 14 of the 28 Commissioners agree with it, the draft is then sent to the Council and Parliament. After debating and amending the draft, they decide whether to adopt it as a law.” In practice, this is little more than a token nod to the ghostly power of the EU Parliament.
Since we are in the EU for the long haul, it is really our responsibility, as citizens of Ireland as well as citizens of Europe, to make it our business to take more of an active and informed interest in this complex organisation that plays such a major role in how we live our lives. We ought to see European Elections as just as important as national and local elections. That is certainly not the case at the moment.