From May 23-26, Irish voters will be thinking about the environment, immigration, spending imbalances, and an EU army, says Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.
EU army and Irish neutrality
These formed a core debate in the last EU parliament elections in Ireland, and do again this time.
And it is not just a few candidates who are raising a red flag around Ireland’s much-protected neutrality or the role of Defence Force members on EU missions.
Mentions of both issues are on election literature and pamphlets for various candidates, from the left to the right.
Independent senator Alice Mary Higgins, daughter of the president, has highlighted concerns. Ms Higgins is a critic of Ireland joining the Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco) alliance, the EU’s defence pact, noting that its document did not mention peace “even once”.
Ms Higgins, standing in Dublin, questions putting so much money “towards militarisation”, when the EU faces bigger challenges, such as climate change.
Midlands-North West MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan has made a YouTube video, ‘What the Story with Ireland’s Neutrality’, warning against the creation of an EU army.
Several other Independents, as well as party candidates, have also expressed equally strong concerns, including TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, Ireland South Sinn Féin MEP, Liadh Ní Riada, and Workers’ Party councillor Éilis Ryan. Businessman Peter Casey, on the other hand, argues that Ireland should give up its neutrality, as it is an “outdated concept”.
Neutrality and the militarisation of the EU, including Ireland’s role in EU battlegroups, will be debating points in the three constituencies, as the campaign enters a crucial stage in the days ahead and voters decide.
Climate change and the environment
Like in no other election before, the environment and climate change are being mentioned on the doorsteps and during canvasses. Voters are asking candidates what they are doing about key global problems, from recycling to carbon tax to reducing the use of fossil fuels.
While Green Party candidates such as senator Grace O’Sullivan will win more favour with voters here than others, different parties are piggy-backing the popular issue. Fianna Fáil Ireland South candidate Malcolm Byrne let it be known recently that he would not support his party’s EU manifesto, unless it went further on climate action.
Furthermore, all the larger parties, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, and Labour, have policies on climate change and environmental issues for these elections. The irony is that these politicians, if elected, will fly back and forth from the EU parliament in Strasbourg almost weekly and will, therefore, have quite a sizeable carbon footprint.
Only this week, a UN report warned about the actions of humans threatening the extinction of 1m species. Last month, thousands of Irish pupils also took to the streets, joining international protests over climate change.
Undoubtedly, with higher carbon taxes favoured and coming down the line for families, green issues are to the forefront of voters’ minds.
Even Andrew Doyle, minister of state for food and forestry and a candidate for Ireland South, is promoting climate-friendly food production industries and the need to reduce food waste.
This week, Sinn Féin also announced that they want a climate change emergency declared.
The EU budget and farming supports
Several MEP candidates are critical of the level of support coming from Brussels, particularly for farmers. Mick Wallace says the current Common Agriculture Payments (CAP) benefit larger rather than smaller farms.
There are also arguments that workers in the fishery industry have received a raw deal on quotas and support. These issues have gained traction, with looming Brexit trade problems for the two sectors.
Even Fine Gael candidates, such as sitting Midlands-North West MEP Mairead McGuinness, among others, say that work needs to be done in Europe to support farmers and those in fishing.
There is a deep concern that, with Britain out of the EU, farmers’ CAP payments will be cut in the next parliamentary term. Instead, candidates such as Ms Ní Riada want more emergency Brexit funds for farmers. With recent farming protests marking government events, we can expect no let-up in debate on these issues as polling day draws closer.
Mr Flanagan is also a prominent voice for farmers, arguing that money should be spent there rather than on military needs.
In fact, there is likely to be a scramble for the next EU budget — which begins in 2021 — given that Britain plans to leave the EU. Ireland is a net contributor to the EU budget, putting in an estimated 1.11% of gross national income. The question is what cuts will be made to the €145bn EU budget, particularly for farmers.
There is significant debate around this in the EU. Polling agency YouGov polled 46,000 people in 14 EU countries (excluding Ireland) and recently reported that one in four citizens say that migration has a negative effect. But it depends on who you talk to.
A number of candidates are openly critical of supports for new Irish residents, whether they are refugees or foreign workers. Candidates, including Mr Casey and Irexit backer Hermann Kelly have taken issue with immigrants, with the former facing severe criticism for calling direct provision residents “freeloaders” when people in direct provision are, by law, not allowed to work.
This is a much bigger topic in other EU states, including Italy and Greece, which are at the forefront of the migration crisis.
But there has been some flare-up of the issue here, too, most notably arson attacks on a hotel on the Leitrim/Roscommon border which was due to open as accommodation for asylum seekers. Authorities have now cancelled this plan.
In other EU countries, the far right has capitalised on concerns around immigration, but it remains to be seen how important it is for voters here.
Other MEP candidates are more welcoming of foreign residents. Mr Wallace says that Ireland should increase its intake of asylum seekers to more than 20,000.
Equally, Social Democrats Dublin candidate Gary Gannon has raised the plight of refugees and encouraged support for them.
Broadband, spending, and taxation
Despite not pertaining directly to the EU elections, the €3bn broadband debacle has now become a hot topic. Voters are more than ever conscious of how the Government and the EU spend money.
And if Britain leaves the union and there is less to spread around, some cuts will be felt. Amid this, the broadband debacle is becoming more significant. It is an urban-rural debate, too.
In Dublin, voters complain about wasting money, while in remote parts of the country, businesses and homes are crying out for infrastructure, such as a high-speed broadband network.
Equally, there are mixed opinions among candidates about Ireland’s corporation tax levels. This is something other member states, including France, have focussed on again and again.
While Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates defend the low taxation of companies, Independents and smaller parties, such as People Before Profit and Solidarity, maintain that it should increase, especially with large multi-nationals in Ireland paying very low rates into the exchequer.
During a visit to the Netherlands this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Dublin and Amsterdam are united on the issue of taxation being a matter for member states.
However, any MEP that takes their seat in July, when the new EU parliament sits for a five-year term, will find this a topic that counterparts in other member states will return to again. This will remain a focus in Brussels and Strasbourg, despite the Government’s contention that it is a sovereign matter.