ANN CAHILL: Brussels Briefing: A weekly round-up of the most interesting news from Europe

Get a taste of some of the interesting and quirky happenings in Europe from our Europe correspondent, Ann Cahill

Irish religious discrimination probed

The UN committee considering how Ireland observes the Convention on the Rights of the Child were confused when it came to students and schools.

They asked why kids need to be baptised by parents who do not believe just to get them into a school and why there was no alternative to the religious class of the school’s patron, even though the State funds all schools.

The suggestion was that the new schools admission bill would resolve it all — it won’t of course and not least because it will fall before the general election.

They didn’t know that Ireland actually allows religious discrimination, where schools and hospitals can hire and fire staff and accept or reject patients and students on the basis of their religion.

And to prove it, the Government ‘opted out’ of EU equality rules to maintain discrimination.

Reilly shines at UN hearing

The star of Ireland’s day-long grilling by the UN committee on the Rights of the Child was Children’s Minster James Reilly.

As the committee began to display signs of unease at being buried under statistics and jargon by the huge contingent of civil servants, Dr Reilly stepped in.

While some might have been a little sceptical about the utopia being sketched, they were positively cheering when he regaled them with his major success not just at Irish but at EU level.

He was particularly in his element when questions on health arose, and especially when Ireland’s reputation for smoking and alcohol consumption was raised.

As chair of health ministers during Ireland’s EU presidency, he concluded the rules on tobacco, and in Ireland on plain packaging of cigarettes which he believes will survive tobacco companies’ threatened legal action.

Irish MEPs make awards shortlist

Two Irish MEPs are among the 57 shortlisted from the 751 in the European Parliament for awards in March.

Fine Gael’s Seán Kelly is in line for the Energy award, though he could have been included in the Digital Agenda and the Environment sections for his mammoth work.

Brian Hayes, MEP and FG director of elections, is up for the Economic and Monetary Affairs award, including for his work on pensions.

Irish MEPs learn truth on flood woes

Apart from Independent MEP Marian Harkin, the Irish politicians who spent a few hours grilling European Commission officials about resolving the country’s flooding woes were at first sceptical. They had swallowed the Government’s long-held mantra that they were powerless to do anything sensible because of stupid EU rules. The truth of course was that they didn’t want to do anything, and cost taxpayers a fortune keeping up the charade that included defending decisions through the courts. The attitude of most of the group was quite different after the meeting, and despite being cross-party, including Luke Ming Flanagan, they issued a joint statement. It avoided mentioning the Commission’s advice on the importance of bogs, but noted the Government is late with their flood risk management plan.

MEP launches youth initiative

The spunout.ie site is well established and well known to many young people, funded mainly by the HSE and Atlantic Philanthropies, offering lots of news, support and help.

It has just been extended to include SpunOut European Parliament, launched by EP vice-president Mairéad McGuinness.

Despite 64% of 18 to 24 year olds saying they would vote in the 2014 European elections — very few did. And they want to change that before the next election in 2019. Part of that will include inviting 7,000 young people from all over the EU to the Parliament’s session in Strasbourg in May.

SF aims to keep the Union together

Sinn Féin, a party that has united Ireland in its fashion in the European Parliament, has a strong vested interest in battling against Britain exiting the EU. The once-eurosceptic party is signalling all the ways in which Brexit would disadvantage not just the Republic, but Northern Ireland as well.

Martina Anderson, MEP, who heads up the party’s four MEPs including the three from the Republic, is organising a major conference on the topic in Belfast towards the end of the month.

Included will be Britain’s threat to repeal the Human Rights Act — which is not an EU document.

Bruton’s prescription for Britain

More heart is the prescription recommended by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, former EU ambassador to the US, current chair of the IFSC, to the EU, especially in the context of the in-out British referendum.

He compared the allegiance of most US citizens to their federal state with the increasing scepticism of Europe’s citizens to its EU. The symbols that appeal to the heart — anthem, flag, military — from his first-hand experience in Washington were essential to developing a European patriotism that would keep the EU together.

His book of essays, Faith in Politics, was introduced by MEP Seán Kelly in the European Parliament.

But, Mr Bruton recalled, these symbols were the first thing national leaders ripped out of the European Constitution he had helped put together.

Ireland’s has fourth lowest tax take

Ireland still has the fourth lowest tax take in the EU, despite having the fourth highest increase in tax to GDP between 2013 and 2014, according to Eurostat.

Total revenue from taxes and social contributions were a quarter less than the EU average in 2014 — which helps explain why there is so little money for child care services.

Tax on income is actually higher than the EU average, but social contributions are close to a third of what are paid mainly by employers in other eurozone countries.

The contribution of taxes on the income or profits of corporations are just very slightly higher than the EU average, despite the country hosting much of the world’s most profitable companies.


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