Affairs of the heart…and periphery March 26, 2013Posted by Oireachtas Retort in European Politics, Uncategorized.
In recent weeks the Oireachtas European Affairs Committee was holding hearings on the state of the Union and Irish attitudes to same. The standard narrowness of Irish debate takes on even slender proportions in EU matters thanks to the coercion involved due to multiple failure of Ireland’s political class. Any time spent watching Strasbourg or even visiting the Parliament website feels like a different planet.
Hearings took place before Cyprus unfortunately. Cheerleading has become increasingly fruitless as our masters repeatedly make a complete bags of things. A measure I think of how serious the situation remains (again) was the usually uber responsible Karl Whelan openly talking about runs and spreading deposits across accounts on television last night.
The economists, ‘leading’ journalists, MEPs and usual suspects invited to Oireachtas did little alter the consensus but there is still insight into what that consensus looks like in 2013.
Ann Cahill of the Irish Examiner, RTE’s Sean Whelan and Dan O’Brien of the Irish Times (transcript)
UCD academics Prof Brigid Laffan and Dr Gavin Barrett. (transcript)
Seamus Coffey UCC, Mr. Nat O’Connor and Mr. Tom McDonnell TASC. (transcript)
Dublin MEPs Gay Mitchell, Emer Costello and Paul Murphy (transcript)
Il post Sean Whelan’s contribution below for no reason other then some rare candidacy from an RTÉ journalist and iteresting to see a polcor wanting rid of STV and Multi-seats. Paul Murphy is below and TASC worth a read above.
Mr. Seán Whelan: I thank the committee for the invitation to appear today. As things change at European level, so must things change at the level of national parliaments. We have had a plethora of changes as a result of the economic crisis we have gone through, with measures such as the six pack, the two pack, the fiscal rules, the European semester, budget co-ordination measures, and so on. All of those necessitate a reform of governance of Irish EU affairs and in domestic Irish affairs, which are increasingly intertwined. Countries that successfully adapt a new economic management system are more likely to prosper. At the very least, they are more likely to be off the radar for investors worried about economic mismanagement.
Being off the problem radar alone, however, should in no way be confused with success. During the last decade, we spend most of the time as a blip on its counterpart, the success radar, hitting all EU targets used to measure economic performance in the single currency area in particular. There was outrage here and abroad when the European Commission reprimanded us in a most gentle way for breaching the broad economic policy guidelines about ten years ago. We could do no wrong it seemed, right up until the point where we blew up in the most spectacular fashion. This was because we became victims of what might be called “stealth failure”, something that sneaks up because we are not looking out for it and not prepared to deal with its consequences if it breaches our defences. It is like the Germans with mad cow disease. If there is no testing for a problem, it will not be found in the first place.
The move to the single currency was a truly massive change but we responded with a minimal change to our institutional set-up to deal with it. We are now scrambling at national and European level to catch up. We also must undertake a lot of national changes. We should not just implement the European changes. We should be prepared to go well beyond the level of change required at European level. We should be more proactive in adapting our institutions and governance, guided by strategies that are both offensive and defensive in their approach to dealing with the evolution of the European Union and our place in it. I suggest as a philosophical starting point that Europe is something we make ourselves, not something that is done to us. It is also far more important that we make changes in our governance here for our own sake, not just to be seen as the good boys in Europe. We cannot afford another catastrophe like the one we have just experienced.
When I talk about an offensive European policy, I do not mean going around offending people but of having a point of view and advancing it coherently over the long run. We can do this already on narrow sectoral policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, or national economic priorities such as corporation tax. Do we have a view to advance, however, on other issues, such as pan-continental macroeconomic policy, world trade policy, modernisation of the European Union itself or other international institutions?
When I talk about defensive European policy, I mean being able to guard against the worst excesses of European policy and against our own internal failures, such as failures to implement or non-implementation – looking out for the stealth failures I mentioned.
What I am referring to is best summed up in Dr. Eddie Molloy’s phrase “implementation deficit disorder”, which has caused many difficulties down the decades in the management of the State. Defensive strategies are also required to guard against the negative perceptions of European Union membership. The idea that Ireland is being bossed around and forced to do things is corrosive of support for the European Union. Defensive strategies can help ensure that perception is minimised by ensuring we are not in a situation in which we can be bossed around in the first place. However, in cases in which one is being bossed and booted around by other countries, one needs to be able to switch into an offensive strategy and go on the offence against it or even think about getting out altogether.
In terms of legislation, it is relatively easy to appear part of a winning coalition in the Council and in the Parliament but if one ends up through one’s own stealth failure becoming a ward of the system then one has no one to blame but one’s self. We need to be hard-nosed in Ireland, particularly in our political and parliamentary system, and most especially about money in all its manifestations, protecting the wealth of the nation from all enemies, internal as well as external.
There are number of strategies that might offer a quick fix in the short term and other medium and longer-term suggestions that might be useful to consider. We should consider using MEPs to greater effect. It is good to see a member and a former member of the European Parliament at the committee. They are a great resource to have. We have a small parliamentary and political setup here. Having elected members in the European Parliament is a resource on which we should draw in a more integrated way. They have the expertise and day-to-day knowledge of what is happening in the European Parliament. It is good to gain visibility on issues earlier. We also have the Lisbon treaty amendment, under which legislation is supposed to be sent to national parliaments as a first measure. There is the potential to draw national parliaments much more closely into the European process. We need to use those opportunities to get a better handle on what is happening and deal with it though the twin prisms of offensive and defensive strategies. Another ally of the Parliament should be the Fiscal Council in helping to deepen one’s understanding of and engagement with fiscal policy. It could be seen as a useful harm reduction mechanism in its most simple form, but most usefully, if it is employed correctly, it can help in the process of hardening up the State when it comes to dealing with financial problems. The idea is to protect the money and the citizens who own that money.
Perhaps a more medium-term suggestion is to make better use of the science and technology options assessment panel, STOA, in the European Parliament. We are becoming increasingly aware of the need to have legislation dealing with fairly complex issues and it is useful to have a sounding board to test out technical issues and aspects. It is quite expensive to build up that expertise, whereas it already exists in the European Parliament. There may be some ways for Ireland to try to subcontract or piggyback on what the STOA group is doing that could be useful for parliamentarians in Ireland. Ultimately, given the changes that have occurred and are continuing to occur and the level of complexity that is now evident, we must change the electoral system in order to give Deputies and Senators sufficient time to deal with the issues in a much deeper way. Members do not have time to do what they need to do and the big impediment is the electoral system. Until we change that we will be engaged in an uphill struggle to get on top of the issues that present themselves.
In summary, I believe offensive and defensive national strategies are needed for dealing with the development of the European Union and our ability to act tactically in support of strategic objectives. One must be constantly vigilant against stealth failures. To quote a great Cork man, “Fail to prepare – prepare to fail”.
With regard to the question of institutional change, I will first address the points raised by Deputy Dooley about who is in charge of the European Union and the growing tendency of people to look to national leaderships and setups. This trend was inevitable because the system has designed it in that way – it is the default position. The treaties, which were agreed and in some member states approved in referendums, established the primacy of national governments in all matters. This means that when the system comes under stress, people will look to their national leaders, given that national leaders have assigned to themselves the key role in driving the European Union. The leaders are the members of the European Council and the national systems that back them up. Until that system changes, we will be stuck with it. Given that constraint or reality, we need to do what is best for us within that system. That is the reason I spoke of having a defensive outlook, hardening up the State and getting tougher across every aspect of dealing with the State.
Senator Colm Burke’s suggestion regarding the role of the Seanad in dealing with European affairs appears to be a good use of the resource that the Seanad represents. In Britain, the House of Lords committee dealing with European Union affairs does excellent work and is one of the best resources available for those who want to find out about developments in the European Union. One can read many of its reports to find out about the EU. I presume upper houses in other parliaments are also doing good work in this area.
It is good that Members of the European Parliament are addressing the Seanad. There is significant scope for the Upper House to develop as a type of European Union clearing house. This would not necessarily add additional complexity to the system, as Mr. O’Brien pointed out, if it acted as an early warning radar – I am obsessed with radars – picking up issues quickly before they became problems. While most of the legislation is not a problem, occasionally something may slip through. The Oireachtas must try to feed into its offensive system to try to get things done when this occurs. The faster and more efficiently we do this, the better. I recall, however, that it is Fine Gael policy and possibly Government policy to abolish the Seanad as part of its institutional reform programme. The only element of the reform of which I am aware is the proposal to abolish the Seanad.
This leads us to the issue of electoral change, which is a vast area. Members will be familiar with the background and history of the issue. The use of single transferable votes in multi-member constituencies is a perverse system. It is nuts, and it wastes too much time. However, when one suggests abolishing it one is immediately accused of seeking to abolish proportional representation. That is not the case. As members are aware, the system in place here is a very strange and curious version of proportional representation, one that is used only in national elections in Ireland, Malta and the Australian Senate.
Members are all painfully aware that it wastes too much time. Members of the Oireachtas spend far too much time campaigning for elections and not enough time in the House dealing with the kinds of issue they were elected to deal with. I was going to say it is a luxury we cannot afford, but it is not a luxury. Members suffer under this so-called luxury.
Mr. Seán Whelan:The committee understands what I am driving at. It is something that has become an enormous cost to the country and we cannot afford to bear that cost for much longer. We need to change the system to one that gives Members time. I will not be prescriptive about what that system ought to be. For many decades, there has been discussion about a variation on the German system in which the House is split into two halves as a possible way of getting at least a cadre of people who would have a bit more time away from the constituencies, but that is something Members can sort out among themselves fairly quickly and easily. I appeal to them to do it quickly because it is the key problem and will become a catalyst for addressing a whole lot of other structural changes that need to be done in this State but will only be done if the political system has the time to devote to them. That is one aspect of the structural change that should be driven by the crisis we are in now. From that electoral change, the Oireachtas would have the various mechanisms for addressing all of the issues that have come our way as a result of the crisis, not least fiscal management.
( Part one below. The rest is on the VoteJoeHiggins account) Plenty of argument.