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Joint Committee on European Union Affairs debate -
Wednesday, 21 Oct 2015

Accountability Report 2014: European Movement Ireland

We are delighted to have before us European Movement Ireland, EMI. I welcome back to the committee Ms Noelle O'Connell who is the executive director of EMI. Ms O'Connell will talk to us today about the performance of Ireland's Parliament and Government in regard to participation in the European Union. Members will also have an infographic in front of them outlining the various response rates at various institutions of the Parliament, the European Council, Commission, Oireachtas, etc. We will have a chance to discuss that in our first session. We will then have a separate session where we will discuss the response to the country specific recommendations of the European Semester.

We will kick off with Ms O'Connell but before I ask her to make her opening remarks, I would remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank the Chairman and members for extending once again this valuable invitation to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs and provide an overview of European Movement Ireland's accountability report. My presentation today will focus on our 2014 report. This fifth accountability report has been collated into a detailed infographic. In addition to our 2014 work, the infographic of the 2010-2014 period also enables us to compare and contrast our findings over the past five years and better enables us to draw some overall conclusions. We do this as part of our ongoing efforts and mission statement to shine a light on Ireland's engagement with Europe at a number of different levels. For over 60 years, we have been dedicated to promoting the economic, political and social development of Europe, ensuring transparency and accountability at all levels of Ireland's relationship and engagement with Europe. Hence, these are four years of our accountability reports and last year's infographic. Cognisant of the time constraint, I will do my best to distil down our five years of accountability in a short address.

Similar to my previous presentations before the committee, I would preface my remarks with something of a health warning and caveat.

Our reports rely solely on quantifiable indicators that are available in the public domain. We acknowledge that they cannot definitively and fully analyse the overall quality of the engagement measured. For example, we acknowledge that analysing the daily activities of MEPs in the Parliament does not allow for a complete analysis of their engagement with the European parliamentary process since much of the work of MEPs is ongoing.

We believe that applying this caveat is a necessary precaution. However, it is no reason not to monitor and comment on data that is publically available. European Movement Ireland believes that scrutiny is vital in promoting transparency and accountability at the highest levels of Ireland’s engagement with the EU and I hope the findings of our accountability report and my presentation today are beneficial to members, both as committee members and parliamentarians.

Turning to the accountability report, members will see that for 2014 we have split the report into two substantive sections looking at the European Council and the Councils of the EU, the European Parliament and the Oireachtas. The first section is a summary of our 2014 analysis and in the second part of the infographic, we share our reflections on the 2010-2014 findings and draw an analysis over the five-year period.

I ask members to first look at the European Council and the Council of the EU. We found that the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, attended all eight meetings of the European Council in 2014. Members will see that a 100% attendance rate by the Taoiseach and his predecessor, Brian Cowen, is consistent across the 2010-2014 period for a total of 34 Council meetings. European Movement Ireland welcomes this record as evidence of Ireland’s commitment to high level EU engagement.

Attendance by Ministers at meetings of the various Council configurations of the EU increased steadily from a 75% initial finding in 2010, peaking at 99%, the highest ranking of all the member states in 2013, coinciding with Ireland holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of Europe.

On the basis of published information available to EM Ireland at the time of our 2014 report publication in May of this year, we found that Irish Ministers attended 72 of the 85 Council of the EU meetings in 2014, with an overall average attendance of 84.6%. There was very little separating the member states' attendance at the various Council meetings in the middle section of the rankings. In some cases, for example, just one meeting may have been attended by Ireland at Secretary General or Permanent Representative level but that is not recorded as ministerial attendance for the purpose of our accountability report. We acknowledge and preface our remarks by indicating that ministerial absences from meetings were impacted on by conflicting domestic obligations, including Cabinet meetings and Oireachtas business associated with the budget.

A closer scrutiny of ministerial attendance goes into some detail in terms of the various Council configurations but in summary, we believe the picture is quite positive. With more than 400 meetings of the various EU Councils over the past five years of our reporting period, the average attendance by Irish Ministers at those meetings stands at 88%.

As members will know, our accountability report is an organic and evolving process and we always welcome feedback from our stakeholders and members of the public on how we progress with the report. Based on feedback from our initial year in 2010, we got feedback, guidance and advice on how it would be useful to compare Ireland's findings with the rest of our EU member states. That was a new indicator that we tracked in 2011. Averaging out Irish ministerial attendance over four years, in comparison with the rest of the EU member states, Irish ministerial attendance for the four years from 2011 stands at 91%, which compares to a German average of 87%. Denmark stands at 89%. I felt it was useful to put that in context for members. We will continue to monitor ministerial attendance and we would be hopeful that this average continues to improve.

Turning to the European Parliament, regarding the performance of Irish MEPs over the five-year reporting period, European Movement Ireland tracked monthly plenary attendance and the number of speeches, written questions, opinions and reports issued by Irish MEPs.

A caveat must be applied to the analysis of the 2014 findings since the European Parliament elections were held in May 2014 impacting on the ordinary functioning of the European Parliament and levels of national representation. To better reflect this we divided the findings into 2014 A for the first half of the year when Ireland had 12 MEPs, and the latter half of the year from July onward when Ireland returned 11 MEPs.

The five-year findings show average attendance by Irish MEPs at monthly plenary sessions increased from 84% in 2010 to a high of 93% in 2013; 2013 was a very good year. Attendance held steady in the first half of 2014 but decreased to 76% in the latter post-election half of 2014, which was among the lowest attendance by member states in this period.

The number of speeches by Irish MEPs fell from 944 in 2011 to 200 in the latter half of 2014. That downward trend, mirrored in the 2014 figures in particular, is reflected across written questions, opinions and reports issued but again members should note that in 2014, the Parliament was not in full legislative mode.

It is also encouraging that already in 2015, based on our preliminary research and findings to date, the published data at the end of September are indicating an increase across the majority of these metrics, which is something we welcome. Up to the end of September, attendance by the Irish MEPs stood at 83%, with 758 speeches delivered, which already exceeds the entire number of speeches given last year.

Does that refer to an actual speech or a contribution? For example, what I am saying now is counted as a speech in the metrics. Is it the same in the European Parliament? Is an intervention in a committee a speech?

Ms Noelle O'Connell

Yes. If the Chairman wishes I can provide further details subsequently. We are not at the stage of formally writing the 2015 report but this is what our preliminary indicators are showing.

Bearing in mind the life cycle of the Parliament and the gestation periods of parliamentary reports, we would like to see Irish MEPs aim to publish one, if not two, reports during their parliamentary tenure.

In terms of the Oireachtas committees, according to the Programme for Government 2011-2016, all Ministers should appear before their respective committees or before this committee prior to travelling to Brussels for meetings of the Council where decisions are made. European Movement Ireland is very supportive of the Government’s commitment to bolster its democratic accountability in this regard and its engagement in terms of prioritising Ireland's relationship with Europe and the EU.

Having examined the minutes of all Oireachtas committee meetings in 2014, we found that Ministers had a 51% rate of pre-Council briefing attendance. That level may appear to be quite low but it represents a year-on-year increase on 2011 when we had rates of just 36%, albeit solely for General Affairs Pre-Council briefings, to 46% in 2013. Attendance at the individual committees ranges from 100% for General Affairs before this committee, 80% for ECOFIN before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, noting that the only two briefings of ten missed by the Minister, Deputy Noonan, fell either side of budget 2015, to no pre-Council briefings out of a possible four for education, youth, culture and sport, EYCS, before the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection.

Notwithstanding the demands on Ministers’ time or where, for example, Oireachtas committees have agreed alternative arrangements with Ministers over the frequency of these briefings, EMI advocates for better compliance with the systems that have been put in place to ensure Oireachtas scrutiny of matters before decisions are made in Brussels. We are seeing a steady but slow upward trend in pre-Council briefings by Ministers. We welcome this metric and would like to see it continue and improve in the coming years.

In terms of the attendance rate at this Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, the accountability report does not provide an analysis of attendance by individual members.

Rather, we looked at the attendance of all members at the 29 meetings last year and arrived at a composite average of 61%. The average attendance has varied from a low of 59% in 2010 to a high of 71% in 2011. Over the five-year period, attendance has averaged at 63%.

We recognise that members’ workloads and competing priorities can impact on their ability to attend all committee meetings. This is something that Deputies and Senators regularly highlight to me each time we present the accountability report to this committee and we are very cognisant of it. However, in considering important EU developments and initiatives affecting Ireland, ensuring that EU legislation and proposals are properly scrutinised at a domestic level and in holding the Government to account in our relations with Europe, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs plays a key role in informing debate on the European Union in Ireland. So it will not come as a surprise to its members that we are advocating a high attendance rate by its members.

From the findings of the 2014 report and the full reporting period from 2010 to 2014, we can conclude that Ireland is doing quite well in some aspects of its engagement with Europe and has room to improve in others. For example, attendance by taoisigh at the European Council for 34 meetings over five years could not be better, standing, as it does, at 100%. The attendance and engagement of our elected representatives at the other European and domestic fora is steady, particularly when the various contexts impacting performance is acknowledged. This is something Deputies and Senators have highlighted to us over the years. We argue that there is always room for improvement and we continue to hope for an upward trajectory and trend.

Our accountability campaign is a vital part of European Movement Ireland's mission to lessen the democratic deficit and knowledge deficit in Ireland’s engagement with Europe. We have tried to distil and present last year’s findings in a detailed infographic rather than a 100-page report that might not get as much readership and traction among the public that we would like. We have used the infographic in an effort to communicate the information in as clear and accessible a manner as possible.

As members of the committee will appreciate, the process behind the reporting is challenging and labour intensive. For example, in tracking members’ attendance at this committee throughout the 2010-14 reporting period, members of the European Movement Ireland team have physically attended and reported on more than 156 committee meetings. In that same period, we have tracked 3,759 speeches and 2,860 written questions in the European Parliament.

We rely solely on information and data that are available in the public domain, which inevitably throws up a number of difficulties. It does not allow for a fully qualitative analysis of the engagement in question or reflect the inevitable conflicts that arise in the schedules of elected representatives and we are careful to acknowledge this in contextualising our findings.

We are also restricted by the delay with European institutions publishing their data. Consequently, we can only stand over our findings as being accurate to the best of our ability at the time of publication. We are often frustrated by the subsequent release of relevant data after we have gone to print. In scaling up our accountability reporting we had hoped to publish biannual reports in line with each EU Presidency term. However, this will not be possible until the various bodies start publishing their data in a more consistent and timely manner, thereby better enabling us to fulfil this project in terms of the streamlining of information being made available to the public.

We are at an important juncture of EU relations with many sectors interested in the various developments and outcomes. In advance of - I can now say - next year's general election, European Movement Ireland recommends that all political parties give strong consideration to European policy and European issues relevant to Ireland in drafting their election manifestos.

European Movement Ireland is very proud of our accountability project. We will do our best not to be deterred by the challenges I have outlined. We hope the members find the reports provide added value and assist them in their committee work. I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for giving us the opportunity over the past five years to present and report on our accountability campaign to this committee. I acknowledge the work the committee is doing in trying to promote and develop that connection and engagement between Ireland and Europe. European Movement Ireland is very supportive of the work of the committee in that regard. I look forward to continuing to report on some aspects of our accountability report next year.

I welcome Ms O'Connell and Ms Flynn and thank them for their continued participation in the entire European project with the committee.

I have previously given my views on the limitations of the usefulness of the accountability report, which Ms O'Connell has already addressed. It is helpful in pointing in a particular direction, but it by no means gives the overall picture. When material like this is put in writing it can be used in a positive or negative way. I will highlight certain aspects. Attendance at this committee is reflected, which is fine. While obviously it is not European Movement Ireland's intention, it does not provide the full picture. I can come to all these meetings and spend my time responding to my constituents and can have a full attendance. It looks good when it is presented in just that amount of information, but it is in no way reflective of the participation thereafter. We are all the same in terms of how things are presented in the media - we are lazy. We take the headline and we accept it from there. In terms of outputs, reports and participation, has European Movement Ireland considered any methodology that might use the data it has collected, but present an opinion rather than just presenting the raw data?

Ministers are expected to attend various meetings in Europe. Sometimes they will make a judgment that it is not in the country's best interest to be there owing to another competing interest elsewhere. Cost may also be a factor. If a Minister attends 100% of the meetings, it seems great, but at some time there will be a freedom of information request over the cost. The Chairman knows this well, as he is a very good attender at important meetings.

The Deputy is not too bad himself.

I try.

However, when the freedom of information request is submitted, it can present a different slant or picture. I would like to see the European Movement Ireland try to develop a methodology that encompasses some kind of opinion. It needs to consider the effectiveness of the committee rather than those who attend or do not attend. It needs to consider how it works overall.

The Deputy is suggesting not just the metrics, but a qualitative analysis of them.

It should not be just the metrics, but the outputs. As an addendum it can point to 61% attendance last year, but it needs to feed in to an overall opinion. The same applies to Ministers' attendance. It needs to take in the broader aspects.

However, I compliment European Movement Ireland on its continued effective work.

I welcome Ms O'Connell and Ms Flynn. It is good to have the presentation. Deputy Dooley has raised some interesting points about a qualitative view. His latter point highlights a great dilemma for people in public life over the past five years. Particularly at the time of the recession we had the question of the cost factor. It was a huge dilemma for all of us presented with an option to travel somewhere.

We constantly weighed up the importance to Ireland of being there against the potential of it being misconstrued by certain members of the public. While I presume it will become less of an issue in future, it was a major dilemma for us in recent years and Deputy Dooley was right to raise it. A number of us would have shied away from particular events on that basis.

I will be brief, as there is no need to go on about this issue indefinitely, but it merits saying in response to the report that the Irish engagement is of a high quality at all levels from the Government to our MEPS. Our Civil Service engagement is also effective and professional. As a geographically peripheral island and in the worst of times, we can be proud of engaging so wholly with the European project. We stand up well.

Thank you, Deputy.

It merits saying. Now that we are in public session, it is important that the public be under no illusion about this. Ireland is A1 in terms of participation and our political leadership is A1 in terms of bringing the needs of the people to the centre of Europe.

I welcome Ms O'Connell and Ms Flynn and offer my congratulations on the report and its findings. The report is clear and concise in its stats and graphics. Last year was an election year and the number of MEPs was reduced to a smaller contingent of 11. If someone is out sick, which I understand is the case at the moment, our attendance is skewed disproportionately. Perhaps this might explain the findings or maybe there should be an addendum denoting it.

There seem to be discrepancies in the number of speeches corresponding with the number of MEPs. The number increased in 2011 to 686 but fell again in 2012. Was there a reason for this? The number of written questions fell from 1,067 in 2010 to 384 in 2013. What was the reason for this? Were extra research staff available to MEPs? Was there a change in procedures? The number of opinions fell from nine in 2010 to three in 2013 and zero in 2014. What was the reason for this?

I will be brief and not reiterate the comments of others. We made the same remarks last year about how these reports present certain data. We are all familiar with how people in certain fora come in, sign on the dotted line and go back out the door again. There is an issue with quantitative and qualitative research. I raised this matter with the witnesses last year. It is important that more effort be invested in a qualitative analysis of contributions, be it at European Parliament level, Council level or wherever.

My colleagues have referred to the issue that we all face with the way that travel on behalf of this committee is presented. Perhaps the witnesses could have a role in shaping public opinion. They should consider this.

The report does not track the qualitative output of this committee, including our reports. I am proud of some of our initiatives, for example, our Brexit report. We were not simply following up on something that was part of the standardised agenda. We took the initiative off our own bat. I compliment the Chairman and the executive in that regard. The overall infographics do not reflect the quality of the output. The witnesses should consider this.

On that note, we had ten amendments accepted by the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC, on the 2020 strategy. That was unprecedented for us, but it is not reflected in this report. That said, the general consensus is that this is a worthwhile document. A bit of qualitative analysis with it would be most helpful, but that is an issue that Ms O'Connell can answer today and European Movement Ireland can develop in future accountability reports.

Ms Noelle O'Connell


Over to Ms O'Connell. We must finish by 1 p.m.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

That is perfect.

She might answer as many questions as possible in the next three or four minutes.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank the committee. Regarding members' points about the qualitative analysis, we have been conscious of that challenge since we first started doing this in 2010. To that end, we publish a detailed report every year, on average 80 pages long, in which we try to flesh these matters out in greater detail, outline some of the methodologies around the indicators and highlight the extra reports and meetings of this committee. I have had the opportunity and honour of presenting before the committee on the future of Europe, Europe week, Ireland's 40 years and so on. We acknowledge that more is happening. The challenge that we face is one of where to draw the balance and communicate the information in as accessible a manner as possible while recognising the committee's valid request that we not lose sight of the qualitative framework. I will take that request on board.

In undertaking the accountability project for the past five years, we have reached the point of being able to assess what has worked and what has not. For example, we used to consider the number of consultations that Ireland submitted as part of the European Commission consultation process. However, we found that many Directorates General were publishing their findings after we had gone to print. The figures that we were presenting based on our research were correct at the time of going to print, but they did not present the whole picture. As such, we decided to focus elsewhere.

Taking on board members' comments on metrics and the point that a number of them raised about the cost factor, we, as an organisation that was founded 60 years ago to promote and develop Ireland's engagement with Europe, believe it to be vital that Ireland is represented at the table. The primarily upwards trajectory in the past five years has been encouraging. Based on a rough snapshot of the infographics, there has been a welcome increase.

Deputy Kyne asked about discrepancies as well as the variance in the number of written questions and opinions. For many reports and opinions, it is a question of timing. Some years, more are published and come to fruition while other years see a decline. When we asked for our former President of the European Parliament, Mr. Pat Cox's take on the accountability report, he had an interesting view. He stated that his experience of the parliamentary question procedure had led him to conclude early on that it was less effective to follow up questions in depth than it was to write letters to the relevant Commissioners or Commission or Council staff. MEPs have fed this view back to us. Sometimes it is more effective to pick up the telephone. I do not have to elaborate on that for the committee. Attendance figures and raw data are static and we acknowledge that they are not dynamic measurements of engagement, standing, impact, influence and outputs, but measuring them is none the less important.

I am conscious of the time.

This has been a very worthwhile exercise. What has been said certainly gives us food for thought. As Ms O'Connell said, it is a developing process. I thank Ms O'Connell and Ms Flynn for coming before us and explaining it so well. We will suspend briefly to allow the witnesses from the Better Europe Alliance to take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 1.01 p.m. and resumed at 1.06 p.m.