General Affairs Council Meeting and European Parliament Elections: Minister of State for European Affairs

Deputy Joe O’Reilly:
I thank the Minister of State for his thorough overview and explanations which were very helpful. I salute his huge work in this area and the effort he is making to do the job very well. I want to raise a few questions or observations. First, the likelihood of an historic free trade agreement between the US and the EU is welcome and will bestow many benefits on this country, but one of the risks of such an agreement is that it could damage our agricultural sector. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State’s comment on that and what steps he might be able to take to help us protect that sector in the face of a trade agreement. That is very important to the people I represent and for our economy.
Second, the Minister of State rightly cited the situation in Ukraine as being grave and he spoke of the need for Europe to develop its energy capacity and reduce its dependence on imported energy resources in certain sectors. It appears to us as observers that the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating by the hour and by the day. Will the Minister of State comment on the situation there and what steps the EU collectively can take to deal with it? The situation there is very depressing and appears to be getting worse. I would be heartened to hear a view to the contrary but it seems that is the case.
The Minister of State made a good observation regarding euroscepticism. I note from some national polling data in the media across the water that, frighteningly, UKIP is polling extremely well. That brings up the question of the risk of the UK opting out of the European Union by, first, having a referendum – as it will – and, second, by opting out of the Union. I know the Minister of State has been proactive in this area and he is concerned about it. What ongoing steps is he taking to use our good offices and influence to ensure that sanity will prevail in the UK? The implications of such a change for the Border area I represent are quite frightening.
The Minister of State made a good point, and it is important to get it across and get it onto the national agenda, namely, that the European Parliament has much increased powers and is a very relevant body and legislative assembly relative to its previous status. While I do not expect him to comment on individual candidates, I believe he would agree with me that this makes it incumbent upon this country to elect candidates to the European Parliament with proven records, parliamentary experience and with the capacity to contribute to this country’s welfare abroad, irrespective of from what side of the political divide they come. It certainly suggests to me, and I know it is difficult for the Minister of State to comment on this, that there is no room for electing people who lack experience and who simply grandstand and produce platitudes with no capacity to back up what they say. We need to elect very experienced people with parliamentary, and indeed ministerial, experience.

Deputy Paschal Donohoe:
Excellent. I thank the Chairman. A full range of issues have been raised, everything from models to quarterbacks. I will do my best to respond to each question in turn. A number of consistent themes made an appearance and I will deal with those.
My colleague Deputy O’Reilly asked about TTIP, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership which is the opportunity for a trading deal between the European Union and America. He referred to the sensitivity and concern that exists in our agricultural community and sector about that deal. I assure the Deputy that we are fully aware of the concerns of people about a likely deal and the impact on different sectors of our economy, in particular in light of the extraordinary performance the same sector has delivered for our economy in recent years and also for the wider community and society.
Deputy O’Reilly also asked me about the process of the deal. The EU Commission is the lead negotiator for the European Union. At each stage of discussion and negotiation with its counterparts in America it reverts back to the Ministers to give them an update on the negotiations. The deal will then be agreed by the Ministers and, as I mentioned in my contribution, the European Parliament will play a decisive role. I emphasise that the Government and the Ministers involved are very much aware of the concerns articulated by the Deputy.
On the Deputy’s point about euroscepticism and what may or may not happen in the United Kingdom, my view is that there has been a change in the composition of the euroscepticism we are witnessing at the moment compared to a number of years ago. The kind of euroscepticism that was present in the European Union for much of its existence focused on changing the terms of participation of countries within the European Union. Many parties or commentators in the past who may have been associated with the term, “eurosceptic” were supporters of the concept of the European Union but had great concerns about how their countries were participating in it. We are now seeing some new dimensions of that kind of political outlook among many prominent political parties who were against the European Union as it is currently organised and against their countries being in the Union, parties which were opposed to the kind of growth of interdependence and interconnection.
In my view the next Parliament will play a very significant role. Opinion polls are only polls but it is likely that this view will be articulated in greater numbers than in the past in the very forum that is meant to legitimise or offer greater legitimacy to European integration and in the very forum that will have more power than it has had for most of its existence. If those numbers were to be elected to the European Parliament it will pose different consequences for how the European Union will work.
Deputy O’Reilly asked about the United Kingdom referendum. There is a possibility of a referendum under the next British Parliament, depending on who will be in government. Until those hypothetical situations materialise, it is very important for us to be aware of the difference between political debate in the United Kingdom and what a future British Government might do. I wish to affirm the importance of our membership of the European Union and the fact that we will continue to be very durable and positive contributors to the European Union. That is our objective in the years to come. I hope that were such a referendum to take place that the United Kingdom would continue to occupy a similar role.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website