European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2013 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In commending the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill to this House, I am asking Dáil Éireann to continue the long-established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of independent constituency reviews.

The Bill provides for the implementation of the recommendations in the report on European Parliament constituencies 2013, which was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 25 September 2013. It is a short Bill providing for the election of 11 MEPs in Ireland for the 2014 to 2019 parliamentary term.

The Bill has four sections. Section 1 provides that the principal Act referred to in the Bill is the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. It is that Act that is being amended. Section 2 provides, by amending section 15 of the principal Act, that the counties and cities listed in the new third Schedule of the Act will be those in existence on 1 January 2013. Section 3 provides for the substitution of the Third Schedule of the principal Act. The new Third Schedule sets out the name of each constituency, the counties and cities that each constituency will be comprised of and the number of members that will be elected for each constituency in European elections held after 1 January 2014.

The major change from the current configuration is that there will be three constituencies instead of four. The reason for this change is that the Electoral Act 1997 specifies that there shall be three, four or five members in a European Parliament constituency. Given that 11 members are to be elected for the 2014 to 2019 parliamentary term, having four constituencies is not a viable option since it is not possible to allocate 11 seats across four constituencies of three, four or five members.

I will set out, for the record of the House, the configuration of each of the three constituencies. The three-seat Dublin constituency remains unchanged. This will be comprised of the counties of Fingal, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and south Dublin, along with the city of Dublin. There will be a new four-seat Midlands-North-West constituency. This will be comprised of the counties of Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath, along with the city of Galway. In effect, this new constituency consists of the current North-West constituency, along with five counties which were in the former East constituency, but it will not contain County Clare. The new South constituency will be comprised of the current South constituency along with four counties from the former East constituency and County Clare. It will consist of the counties of Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Limerick, North Tipperary, South Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow, along with the cities of Cork, Limerick and Waterford.

The population per MEP in the three constituencies ranges from 409,276 to just 424,356, which is a very narrow range in terms of the variance of population per MEP. Thus, there is a very fair balance of representation between the three constituencies. The Dublin constituency will see its representation closely aligned with the other constituencies in the State. There is a considerable degree of continuity in the arrangement of the constituencies in spite of the change from four to three. The new Midlands-North-West will subsume the current North-West constituency along with the northern part of the East constituency, while the new South will take in the current South constituency, along with Clare and the southern part of the East constituency. The Dublin constituency will remain unchanged.

The previous Constituency Commission reported in 2012 and recommended no change to the European constituencies at that time. In the normal course, constituency commissions were only set up following a national census of population. However, with the impending accession of Croatia to the European Union, the European Council decided in June 2013 on a new allocation of seats to member states in the European Parliament. The Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Act 2013 provided for the amendment of electoral law to allow for the setting up of a constituency committee in the circumstance that the allocation of seats to the European Parliament had been changed but a census was not held or due to be held. The European Parliament constituency committee was duly set up and reported on 25 September 2013. This Bill provides for the implementation of the recommendations in the committee's report.

As I said in my introduction, this is a short Bill. It has the specific purpose of providing for new constituencies in which 11 MEPs will be elected to represent the State in the European Parliament for the 2014 to 2019 parliamentary term. I commend the Bill to the House.

Unfortunately, this legislation unfairly deprives Ireland of stronger representation in Europe. It earmarks Ireland for a reduction in seats as part of the accession of Croatia as the 28th state in the Union.

The reduction from 12 to 11 seats facilitates the reduction in numbers in the European Parliament and the accommodation of the Croatian delegation at a time when Ireland most needs a strong voice.

The decision to cut the numbers was made at intergovernmental level in June 2013. Unfortunately, the Government failed to voice strong opposition. The specific constituency format of large, sprawling areas reflects the recommendations of the Constituency Commission. I acknowledge the Minister's comments on the commission's independence, but it was obliged to act under the constraints set by the new seat level.

Over time, Ireland has lost more than one fifth of its representation in the European Parliament, having been cut from 15 to 12 and now to 11. This hits us disproportionately hard. The reduction in numbers was implemented without any meaningful consultation with the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs. The Irish voice is weak in that Chamber at a time when the Parliament's power and influence have grown. It is important for Ireland that we seek a better deal from Europe on, for example, retrospective capitalisation to help get our economy going again.

With only 11 MEPs, the workload of the Irish representation will be even more thinly spread across 20 committees, where the majority of the European Parliament's work is done. Will our voices be severely limited on these critical committees?

The number of MEPs for each country is roughly in proportion to its population. Under the Lisbon treaty, no country can have fewer than six or more than 96 MEPs. However, the Parliament's current numbers were set before the treaty's entering into force. Those numbers will be adjusted for the next mandate of the European Parliament. For example, the number of MEPs from Germany will be reduced from 99 to 96 while Malta's numbers will increase from five to six.

The European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee was not given the opportunity to have an independent input into the decision making process behind the selection process for the seat reduction. All Irish MEPs opposed this omission. The new sprawling constituencies laid out in the Bill reflect the constraints placed on the Constituency Commission through no fault of its own but by virtue of the agreement to reduce the number of seats to 11.

Consider the manner in which the European Parliament's powers have evolved. During the past two decades, the Parliament has expanded significantly in terms of its influence and power. It has evolved from what was essentially a consultative body in 1973 to a powerful part of the European machinery. One would have thought that this rendered Irish seats and their representation of our people's interests even more important than was initially the case.

By introducing the co-decision procedure in certain areas of legislation and extending the co-operation procedure to more still, the Maastricht treaty marked the beginning of the Parliament's metamorphosis into the role of co-legislator. It gave the Parliament the power of final approval over the membership of the Commission. This represented an important step forward for the Parliament's political control of the EU's Executive.

The Amsterdam treaty extended the co-decision procedure to most areas of legislation and reformed it, placing the Parliament as co-legislator on an equal footing with the Council. The appointment of the President of the Commission was made subject to the Parliament's approval, thus increasing its control over the Executive. The Nice treaty further extended the scope of the co-decision procedure. Co-decision has become the most widely used legislative procedure and covers particularly important areas such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and justice and security policy. The Parliament's role in the preparation of future treaty amendments has become even more significant.

This series of treaty changes from Maastricht to Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon introduced and developed the concept of co-decision powers. This means that the Parliament shares power with the Council of Ministers. Its overall effect creates a bicameral system with the Commission as the Executive.

As EU competency has extended across several areas, including tighter fiscal control through the fiscal compact treaty, the role of the Parliament has become more important than ever before. Ireland needs to have a strong voice fighting our corner in the Parliament. No matter how minimal, the reduction in seats deprives Ireland, a small country on the geographical fringes of the Continent, of a much needed voice in what is an increasingly powerful chamber. This change has also created and will create many difficulties for our representatives, given the geographical sprawl of the Constituency Commission's proposals. However, I do not hold the commission to account for this. It had to work under the tight constraints placed on it by the decision taken at intergovernmental level. This is not a question of having a dissenting voice among the Irish representatives. Rather, I question the reasoning behind not allowing the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee a meaningful input into the process that brought about the decision. As the Minister and others have stated, the commission was constrained. We respect its decision and its independence in arriving at a conclusion in meeting the demands placed upon it by this agreement.

We are debating a fait accompli and merely ratifying a decision that has already been made for us. It reduces the representation of the Twenty-six Counties from 12 MEPs to 11. I recall a time not too long ago when there were 16 MEPs. For this reason, my party must oppose the Bill. As with much of what emanates from Europe, we are being told what to do, not asked what we want or how it might be done differently.

Our main reason for opposing the changes outlined in the Bill is the reduction in the number of MEPs, further reducing whatever influence Irish MEPs have over decisions taken at a higher level. To all intents and purposes, those decisions are not subject to democratic accountability. The Bill also dilutes the overall representation of Nationalists. It is important that we have a strong presence in Europe and plenty of MEPs to fight the State's corner and stand up for Irish interests.

The constituencies will be too large geographically. For example, the townlands of Johnstown in the Minister's constituency and Durrow will be in the same constituency as the Inishowen Peninsula and Achill Island.

We will look after them.

I know, but Mr. Pat The Cope Gallagher, MEP, will have a job getting around all of that. It will be difficult. MEPs will be remote. The area is huge. The same applies to the South constituency. At least the previous constituencies of Dublin, East, South and North-West had some kind of geographical coherence. It might be argued that the old provincial regions and Dublin no longer have much relevancy, and certainly not in the context of wider European representation, but I would argue that the new system of constituencies other than for Dublin, which is being retained, further dilutes the identity of the voter within the institutions to which he or she elects. Importantly, it is also arguable that this change further distances MEPs from those who elect them and who he or she represents. I remember when most people would have been able to roll the names of their MEPs off their tongues. Even with just 12 MEPs, however, a vox pop would show that most people in our towns would now find it difficult to name their local MEPs.

Debate adjourned.