I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting me. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the European elections, which I realise for most normal people are some way over the horizon but for us are really imminent. We are at cruising altitude and working hard and will continue to do so.
It is a shame about the video-conferencing with MEPs but I note that intensive efforts are made by colleagues here to include MEPs in these meetings. Lesser people would throw their hands up and give up, but that is not what happens. I note that the continued efforts made are very much appreciated on the European Parliament side and thank the committee for its continued efforts.
The European Parliament elections take place across the EU on 23-26 May next year. Traditionally, before European elections, the European Parliament runs an information campaign, which we run centrally from Brussels and then at a decentralised level in our 35 liaison offices in the member states. I use the term "information campaign" deliberately and advisedly to distinguish it from the political campaign that precedes the elections. It is worth underlining at the outset here that our campaign is strictly non-political and non-partisan and consists purely of providing information, but information that we hope is presented in a creative way and is well targeted at the audience we are trying to reach.
We seek to inform people about the work and role of the European Parliament and the remit of MEPs, as well as some of the legislative and policy achievements of the Parliament, particularly during the past five years, and we highlight the date of the election and explain the electoral process. In that regard, the big innovation next year will be the two additional seats that were allocated to Ireland by the European Council decision in June and the changes to the constituencies that flow from that.
For the time being we are proceeding on the basis that we think polling day will be on 24 May and that the constituencies will be as proposed by the Constituency Commission at the end of last month, but of course our job will be much easier once these elements are legally confirmed.
Similarly, in the field of known unknowns, we are anticipating local elections on the same day but we are also waiting to see if there will be one or more referendums too, which would obviously have a bearing on the political landscape.
Committee members will be aware that turnout in European elections in Ireland has tended more recently to be above the EU average. It was 52% at the last election against an EU average of 43%. However, as with Europe and the rest of the western world, the trend is for a gradual decline in participation and we are trying to contribute to redressing that. Part of the explanation for the higher turnout in Ireland is the generally positive attitude towards the EU. The Chairman referred earlier to the latest Eurobarometer survey which was published today. The field work was done in late September and the survey confirms what we know to be an overwhelmingly positive sentiment in Ireland towards the EU. A full 92% of those surveyed felt that Ireland has benefited from EU membership. The Chairman interpreted the next statistic differently from me. I understood that 40% of Irish respondents said they were not interested in the upcoming European elections, which is slightly higher than when we last asked the question in April.
We have a twofold challenge in the forthcoming election information campaign. The first is to reach out to the people who say they are not interested and to try to interest them by explaining what is at stake in European elections. The second is to galvanise those who are interested but who, for one reason or another, may not actually make it to the polling station on election day. We will be targeting both deliberate and inadvertent abstainers. Of course, the campaign is aimed at the entire voting age population but there is one demographic segment in Ireland where voting in European elections is well below the EU average, namely those under 25. Turnout was only 21% for this group in 2014, as compared to 37% for those aged 25 to 39, 60% for those between 40 and 54 and 76% for those over 55. In that context, we perceive a need to place particular emphasis on younger and first-time voters. We are not the first people to come along and say that we need to do more to encourage young people to vote. There is a lot of evidence which suggests that if people vote the first time they are eligible, they are much more likely to continue voting. Conversely, if they do not vote the first time they are eligible, they are much less likely to pick up the habit as they get older. This is part of a longer-term effort and is something to which I am personally very committed. We run a number of programmes to try to address this issue, not least of which is our ambassador school programme of which members may be aware. We have a shared interest with colleagues in the Oireachtas on this front and we have had some very productive discussions with Mr. Conor Reale from the outreach section of the House of the Oireachtas. We have identified some areas of shared interest and we are looking forward to working together to deepen that relationship and see what we can do together.
A central plank of our campaign is the website, www.thistimeimvoting.eu, where people can pledge to vote and encourage their friends and family to do so too. This has been launched across the EU in the past fortnight but we are waiting until after the presidential election to launch it here because we did not want to run the risk of causing confusion by having a big promotion of the website in the run up to that election. There will be three phases to our campaign, the first running from November to February when we will be encouraging people to make sure they are registered to vote. The core phase will be from February to April when we will be focusing on what is at stake in the European election and why voting matters. After Easter and into May we will step back and leave the field to the political parties and will concentrate on promoting the date of the election and reminding people to vote.
We hope to work with the grain on the aforementioned phases. We have had some productive discussions with officials in the Department for Housing, Planning and Local Government about how we might work with them, particularly during the voter registration phase of the campaign. We intend to be in touch with local authorities and any referendum commission that may be in place at the appropriate juncture. We are also working with a range of civil society actors and stakeholder organisations on www.thistimeimvoting.eu and providing them with resources for the European elections. Like all campaigns these days, the online component is extremely important but it is certainly not the only one. If we are to reach everybody, we cannot run a campaign exclusively online. There is always room for good old fashioned printed material. One of the things we will be offering on that front is a county-by-county leaflet explaining the mechanics of the election in each county and outlining what the EU has done for that county. We will also be engaging with journalists, preparing radio advertisements and campaign videos and so on. Although it is clearly true that a growing number of people get their news and information online, the majority still get their news from radio and television which, along with newspapers, are the more trusted sources of information. These media will therefore be a big part of the mix for our campaign.
We also intend to promote as much as possible the so-called Spitzenkandidaten or lead candidate process, which featured for the first time in the last European elections. The European Parliament strongly endorsed this process in a resolution in February 2018. It will feature prominently in our efforts to promote interest in the European elections. There is a very strong case for a debate between the lead candidates taking place in Ireland in the run up to the European elections, not least because this will happen immediately in the aftermath of 29 March next year. The next Commission President will be a key figure in terms of what happens in the next phases of the Brexit process. That is obviously of acute interest. A debate taking place here will also take place in English and will be accessible to broadcasters from all around Europe and is capable of generating interest far beyond Ireland and could be a Europe-wide event. It is not something that our office can host but we would encourage others to do so and are certainly ready to provide advice on same. We have started some conversations about it. The two big elements that we are trying to put in place are buy-in from the European political parties, which we hope will encourage their candidates to commit to such a debate and buy in from a major media partner because that is what makes political debates fly. We have started some work behind the scenes on that. It would be a serious lacuna if there were not to be a debate among the lead candidates in Ireland in the spring.
The information campaign runs up until the election but does not stop there. After the election, we have a job to do to communicate about the new Parliament, the new MEPs representing us in Europe, as well as the new Commission President and his or her programme and hearings for the new Commissioners. The communication plan runs through to the end of next year. As members can see, there is a lot going on and for those who want to follow our preparations for the European elections, we produce a monthly newsletter outlining the latest developments. The October edition will be on our website shortly.