When it comes to the European Parliament, it’s important to be aware of the seat distributions. This will be the first EU election since the Brexit vote and, as a result, the parliament is getting that bit smaller (going from 751 to 705 total seats). Of the 73 seats currently held by UK MEPs, 27 are being redistributed to other member states. It’s Ireland’s lucky day – we’ll be receiving two of these new spots, bringing our total number of representatives to 13.
To balance these new positions, constituency lines are being redrawn slightly. While the previous three constituencies of South, Midlands—North/West and Dublin remain, Laois and Offaly are being moved into the South constituency. The South and Dublin constituencies will each be gaining a seat and while Midlands—North/West retains only 4 representatives, its shrunk size is intended to balance this out.
In a slight curveball, Nigel Farage has emerged from his cave to announce that in the instance of the Brexit transition period being extended a further three years, he will seek to compete for re-election. He is insistent that he will not allow Britain to be a ‘rule-taker without having any say’. Whether or not you agree with his politics, Farage is highlighting a significant issue surrounding the Brexit talks fallout. If no agreement is reached, then Britain will be unrepresented within a political body in which it is largely still a participating member. Whether Farage’s insistences go beyond mere posturing remains to be seen; at this late stage it would require a hasty turn-around to reorganise the elections and include Britain once again.
But what are you actually voting for?
For those less EU-fluent, it can be confusing as to where Irish candidates factor into the overlying parliament. We’re still half a year away from the vote, so many candidates are yet to announce. Instead, let’s look at how Irish parties have traditionally aligned with Europe.
In the last parliament, the largest parties were the European People’s Party (EPP), Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats from Europe (ALDE). These would all be roughly centrist, with the EPP being a little more right and S&D being more left of the others. Traditionally, MEPs would choose which EU party reflected their values after their appointment.
Fine Gael is currently firmly aligned with the EPP. All four of its elected MEPs: Brian Hayes, Seán Kelly, Deirdre Clune and Mairead McGuiness, are members of the party. Mairead McGuiness, who is also Vice-President of EPP, was briefly tipped to take over the party leadership and by extension the parliament presidency when the domestic Italian elections looked to threaten President Tajani’s position.
The other party with the most Irish MEPs is the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL). Three Sinn Féin (most notable among these being Liadh Ni Riada, the recent presidential candidate) and one independent (the inimitable Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan). This party is hard left and so it makes sense as the natural home for Sinn Féin on the left-right spectrum.
In the last race, Fianna Fáil had only one successful candidate: MEP Brian Crowley. While FF assert themselves as aligned with ALDE, Crowley broke rank following his election in 2014 and instead joined the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) against party wishes. The ECR is a Eurosceptic party first established by the UK’s Conservative party. While not as hard-line as Farage’s EFD, it is nevertheless notably right-wing. Crowley insisted that ECR was a ‘non-federalist, pro-EU party’ with the goals of creating long-term jobs and prosperity within member states. This sudden switch between ALDE and ECR, while an embarrassment for Fianna Fáil leadership, may not have had much effect in the long-run, given Crowley’s abysmal attendance to the EU. Vote Watch currently ranks him at 0% attendance to roll-call votes. Prior to his election concerns were raised around MEP Crowley’s health and this is widely considered the reason for his absence, calls have repeatedly been made for Crowley to relinquish his position.
As Crowley’s switch to ECR shows, there is no guarantee that candidates from particular Irish parties end up in the same EU ones, but for the sake of simplicity, the current token alignments are as follows:
Fine Gael – EPP
Labour – S&D
Fianna Fáil – ALDE
Sinn Féin – NUE-NGL
Green Party – Greens
Solidarity/PBP – NUE-NGL
As always there is the chance that new independents or hitherto unaligned parties are elected, in which case we will have to see where they choose to base themselves. How is the EU party distribution likely to change as a whole?
Aside from the removal of British MEPs from the mix, there remain two key factors for change that are likely to impact the 2019 elections: a) President Macron and b) a rise in right-wing populism.
Since his election to the French presidency, Macron has positioned himself as a man of Europe – taking a hands-on approach to France’s EU involvement. While the spitzenkandidat process for commissioner appointment seems to have failed, Macron’s self-founded party, En Marche, remains free to throw with any of the top EU parties. It looks likely that En Marche may affiliate itself with ALDE, which would reduce the power of the EPP, skewing the EU landscape slightly more to left of centre. It is also possible that En Marche could set up its own party, separate to those currently in place.
Since, the last EU elections in 2014, right-wing populist movements have blossomed across Europe. It is likely that there will be a significant swing to the far right and Eurosceptic parties in this term. Countries like Hungary and Italy that now have anti-Euro governments will be seeking to undermine the system in the EU parliament. While there is little sign of populist movements entering mainstream Irish politics, the European Parliament has previously proven a springboard for Eurosceptic parties from other member states. Representatives have been able to gain election there more easily and use the platform to support populist movements at home.
While these issues may feel a little distant to Irish politics, they are important matters to consider. As more hard-line Eurosceptics enter the parliament it will become harder for legislation to be passed quickly through the system. The EU is often criticised for being slow to act or overly bureaucratic, but these qualities will only become more apparent as the left-right divide widens and the lead in representation held by parties like EPP diminishes.