After five exciting days of counting, the 13 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) elected by people in Ireland have not yet been fully confirmed, and might not be for up to another month. This is because a full recount will be carried out in the Ireland South constituency, since only 327 votes separated two candidates for a seat. To put this in context, there are over 1.4 million registered voters in Ireland South, and almost 756,000 of them turned out (53%).
Following full confirmation of Ireland’s 13 MEPs, however, two of them will have to “play in the Europa League” as Virgin Media journalist Gavan Reilly described it, until the UK leaves the EU.
This was a special election campaign for us at European Movement Ireland. Ahead of the election, we held twelve public meetings around the country over three months: to encourage people to vote, and to debate the issues with their MEP candidates, (all 59 candidates across the three constituencies were invited to speak at our “Meet the Candidates” meetings).
Based on those events, it probably should not have been surprising that the Green party performed better than most pre-election polls had predicted, since climate change was a recurrent theme at our events. Other regular topics included the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU’s role in helping develop national infrastructure, corporate tax, migration policy, humanitarian assistance in Africa and the Middle East, EU security policy, and how to make the EU more democratic.
Another welcome aspect at our public meetings was how often MEP candidates mentioned their European Parliament group affiliations, and indeed criticised the positions of other groups. Domestic issues were widely discussed too. But in general, most MEP candidates fused those national challenges with trying to find European solutions.
According to the European Parliament live-information website https://election-results.eu/, EU-wide voter turnout shot up from 42 per cent in 2014 to an impressive 51 per cent this year, the first reverse in declining turnout since the first European elections in 1979 (with a 63 per cent turnout). This is an encouraging sign of greater citizen engagement across the EU on European issues.
In contrast however, voter turnout in Ireland was down from 2014, from just over 52 per cent to 49.7 per cent, and for the first time in 25 years, the Irish turnout was below the EU average. The striking growth in EU-average turnout was largely driven by very high rises in four of the member-states with the largest populations: France, Germany, Poland and Spain.
There are several reasons why Irish turnout was lower than in 2014. For example, the Dublin constituency had a much lower turnout (42 per cent) than the other two, which were both above 50 per cent. But the civic objective must be to reverse this decline at the next European elections in 2024.
And what do the European election results tell us about the EU? Health warnings should accompany broad catch-all labels for the multinational political groups at the European Parliament. A centre-right politician in one EU member may support some policies considered centre-left in another, and the European Parliament groups are alliances of national parties, they are not full-blown European political parties.
For example, some European Parliament groups are currently being reconfigured, such as the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE, to which Fianna Fáil and the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland are aligned), with the accession of French President Macron’s Renaissance. In addition, Portuguese PM Costa’s Socialists – currently in the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with Labour and Spanish PM Sanchez’s PSOE – are considering joining the new ALDE.
Contrary to some pre-election projections, ALDE and the Greens (which include the Irish and German Greens) made significant gains. But the overall share of the four broadly moderate groups fell slightly from 529 seats in 2014 to 506 – combining the https://election-results.eu/ seat totals from ALDE, the Greens, the S&D, and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP, which includes German Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Fine Gael).
But not only mainstream moderates lost seats. The self-described “Euro-critical” United Left lost 14 seats, a group that includes Sinn Féin, independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan, Podemos from Spain, and Syriza from Greece – another independent MEP, Clare Daly, told RTÉ she considered herself closest to this group, but had not yet decided if or which group she would join. Likewise, the right-wing Eurosceptic ECR (which includes the Polish governing PiS party and the UK Conservatives) lost 7 seats.
The UK Brexit Party, which won 29 seats, are currently in talks to join a far-right nationalist group led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen. Salvini’s Lega won 28 seats (compared with only five in 2014), while Le Pen’s National Rally lost one seat (from sending 23 in 2014 to 22 to the current pre-Brexit Parliament).
Since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016, however, many non-British Eurosceptics have become a little less sceptical about the EU, in their public pronouncements at least. Very few now openly call for their country to leave the EU, as the UK is doing, nor leaving the common currency, the Euro, as Salvini and Le Pen have suggested in the past.
To further complicate, or excite, matters, the Parliament will again change shape after the UK departs. The current overall number of seats will fall from 751 to 705, with some countries gaining seats. For example, two of Ireland’s MEPs will only then take their seats in Strasbourg and Brussels: Barry Andrews (FF-ALDE) for Dublin and the fifth-placed candidate in the South constituency following the recount.
The post-Brexit changes will matter politically for national politics too. For instance, Le Pen’s National Rally is sending the most French MEPs to the current pre-Brexit European Parliament. After Brexit, however, Macron’s Renaissance will gain two seats while Le Pen’s National Rally will gain one, placing them on 23 seats each, according to the French interior ministry.
Given all this drama, both in Ireland and across the EU, no one can say that European politics is boring. Nor will it become so, with challenges such as Brexit remaining to be resolved. But before all that, we at European Movement Ireland wish our Irish MEPs the very best of luck as they take their seats at the start of July in Strasbourg and Brussels – and we look forward to working with them all during their mandate. Ádh mór libh!