Elections are shaping up and they may reshape the European Union

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the opening of the International Agriculture Fair in Paris, France, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (Charles Platiau/Pool Photo via AP)

French president Emmanuel Macron addressed the citizens of Europe on Monday. Yesterday, the former SDLP leader and Foyle MP, Mark Durcan, arrived in Dublin to run for the European Parliament for Fine Gael.

Today, Fianna Fáil nominations in Ireland South and in Midlands-North-West close. It’s all go now til May 24. Local elections will be held on the same day.

Every European parliament election since the first, in 1979, has been largely about anything and everything except the European Union. Former IFA president TJ Maher showed in 1979 how candidate recognition and a good campaign could buck the two-and-half party system at its zenith. Neil Blaney won that day as well. Dana, Pat Cox, and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan followed on. Durcan is in a long line of big names whom big parties have sought out to give them the star power they need. The usual service of constituency work is insufficient to reach across far-flung euro constituencies.

This time may be a little different. In Brexit, there has never been more European focus on political discussion since our accession to the EEC. And who was around then to remember? Macron’s address highlights the challenges Europe faces, but implicitly points to a more challenging future for Ireland in Europe after Britain leaves. In Macron’s view, Europe “failed to respond to its people’s needs for protection from the major shocks of the modern world”.

That is not just a lesson of Brexit, but balm for the black eye he received from the yellow-vest protests in France. That “no community can create a sense of belonging if it does not have bounds that it protects”, and the assertion that the EU needs to rethink the Schengen area, speaks to the issue of migration.

Economic remodelling of Europe to “reform our competition policy and reshape our trade policy, with penalties or a ban in Europe on businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values, such as environmental standards, data-protection, and fair payment of taxes”, is, however, partly a threat to our national interest. The practical application on tax, especially, would benefit larger countries.

Lest the point be lost, Macron’s advocacy of “the adoption of European preference in strategic industries and our public procurement, as our American and Chinese competitors do” is hard to square with a genuinely single market. Picking winners requires concentrating power. There is sense in some of what he says, but in its power structure it is the crib sheet for a Jupiter (the lofty Roman god of gods) president. Something less Olympian than Macron’s model of himself might suit our small island, and economic model, better in the long-run.

The European Parliament already matters. It is, however, a layer of unfamiliar complexity. As an institution, it is badly served by, or perhaps poorly uses, the media. The diminution of print, and its editorial resources, hasn’t helped. As against that, social media does regularly bring key clips into my timeline. But is the institution either really understood, or loved? I think not. That’s a pity, but a fact.

In a personality-driven contest in Ireland, something fundamental is lost. In the parliament, it’s not your star power at home that defines your effectiveness; it is the group you are in and how it is positioned in the parliament. This is going to be the crossroads in the next parliament, which approves the commission and must agree the budget and legislation, and much more.

The Christian Democrats, including Fine Gael, who cluster under the acronym EPD (standing for European’s People’s Party) will likely be diminished. So, too, will the Socialists, which would include Labour here, if they can get a seat. The Liberals (ALDE, for Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, which includes Fianna Fáil here and as many MEPs as Macron’s new En Marche can get elected) are likely to be enhanced. Between these three, together with the Greens, is the moving space where business will effectively be done. Outside that loop is the expected arrival of more from the far left, and far right, who are essentially Brexiteers of a different stripe from other countries.

And then there is GUE, the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, which includes the three Sinn Féin MEPs and Luke Flanagan. It will likely find new friends in the next parliament, and be a stronger force of opposition to all of the above. As anachronistic as acronyms are, it is in the alphabet soup that power lies. And it is real power over our lives.

Back on the hustings here, I wish Durcan well, but I very much doubt he can swing a second seat for Fine Gael in Dublin. I see one for Frances Fitzgerald, one for Fianna Fáil’s Barry Andrews, and one for Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan. The fourth, must favour the Greens’ Ciarán Cuffe. But another strong Independent candidate could challenge there.

In Midlands-North-West, Fine Gael’s Mairéad McGuinness, MEP, is well-set and so is Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy. There should have been a seat for Fianna Fáil last time, and should be this time. For now, that’s likely to be Cavan’s Brendan Smith. Will Marian Harkin run again? If she doesn’t, Flanagan has more space. The fourth seat is wide-open.

In Ireland South, Fine Gael has two to hold, in Seán Kelly and Deirdre Clune. Minister of state Andrew Doyle, from Wicklow, has most of Leinster to roam and, of the two incumbents, Clune is closer to the edge. I believe Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada will hold her seat.

From today, Fianna Fáil have a dogfight for a convention ahead, as Cork North Central TD Billy Kelleher, TD, faces off Ballincollig councillor Séamus McGrath. Councillor Malcom Byrne, from Gorey, will contest, too, and two candidates in Cork. That is not a balanced ticket. Assuming Fianna Fáil can get one seat, which I do, what about the fifth seat? Is there another TJ Maher or Pat Cox? Labour are running Sheila Nunan, outgoing INTO general secretary and current ICTU president. If there is a phoenix from the ashes for Labour, it’s Nunan. And Fianna Fáil has a problem, which is the lack of female candidates. Áine Kitt is mentioned from Midlands-North-West, and from Tipperary, via Dun Laoghaire, so is Mary Hanafin for Ireland South.

When the political version of Strictly Come Dancing is over, facts will rudely emerge. Incredibly important issues will be decided in the parliament or with its consent. Decision-making there is done in groups that have little visibility here, but which are the essential bailiwicks there. The other key personnel decision is Ireland’s European Commissioner. Phil Hogan is embedded and highly successful. His reappointment, potentially to a major economic portfolio and possibly as a vice-president of the Commission, would be wise.

Hogan is not Ireland’s man in Brussels, of course. But he has a perspective that will be a counterweight, as, after Brexit, a different agenda unfolds.

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