The EU: Brussels sells itself short

This article first appeared in Village magazine, July/August 2023 edition

There is a commonly cited statistic that 70% of domestic legislation originates in Brussels. Sometimes, the figure is 75%, or 80%.

It’s an odd statistic, not least because it is not clear how law might be quantified. Is it based on the number of acts, or directives, or regulations, issued each year? Or is there a brute force word count?

An inquiry to the Attorney General’s office was unhelpful. “The AG’s office has not conducted any study quantifying EU law,” the press office replied. They suggested contacting the Oireachtas press office. The Oireachtas press office had not responded to an inquiry at press time.European Union flags outside the Berlaymont building

The earliest use of the statistic seems to be a 1988 speech by Jacques Delors, discussing the Single European Act in the European Parliament. Delors stated “in ten years 80 per cent of the legislation related to economics, maybe also to taxes and social affairs, will be of Community origin”.

Delors’ prediction, a rhetorical flourish in a speech outlining future EU growth, morphed with each repetition, until it became conventional and unquestioned.

The statistic hang around because, for better or worse, everyone knows the EU has a deep impact. Whether it’s the coins in your pocket, consent pop-ups on every website, or uniform phone chargers, the EU makes a difference. But like the source of the 70% statistic, a lot of what the EU does is still obscure.

In an attempt to increase awareness, the European Parliament Press Office in Dublin organises regular trips to Brussels and Strasbourg for Irish journalists, to meet MEPs and Commission officials. The last such trip took place in late May 2023.

The journalists were a mix of national, regional, and sectoral publications, along with several freelancers. There were broadcasters from RTÉ, RnaG/TG4, local radio stations, national and regional print journalists, and scribes from the Currency and the Farmers Journal covering their specialist beats.

Meetings were arranged with most Irish MEPs, although three – Mick Wallace, Clare Daly and Luke Ming Flanagan – did not take part. Sinn Féin’s Chris McManus was delayed by a vote. However he did manage to catch up with most of the reporters before the end of business, and engaged in a quickfire round of one-to-one greetings with each journalist.

Much of the discussion concerned the topics at the top of the EU agenda at the time including the state surveillance, farming reform, wider environmental issues, and Ukraine.

But some of MEPs also took some time to address the meta topic of press coverage.

“I think it’s fair to say across all MEPs – trying to talk what happens here and in Strasbourg at home is often difficult to sell, so it’s great when we have journalists coming out,” said Maria Walsh (FG)..

“We produce 70% of the legislation. Leinster House produces 90% of the drama,” Sean Kelly quipped at one point.

The creation of EU law can be a cumbersome process, with a five year timetable for major proposals, the entire lifetime of a commission and parliament. This challenges the attention of journalists who work to schedules measured in days or weeks. A journalist’s attention rarely extends past the deadline.

Compounding the information deficit, there are few natural fits between EU constituencies and Irish media. National press and broadcasters cover the Dáil, and the provincial and regional outlets concentrate on their own areas, usually roughly matching Dail constituencies, county councils, or both.

Local media in Dublin are more interested in covering city and county councils in the capital than Brussels. In the other two constituencies, there is even less match. The sprawling Midlands–North-West in particular makes little sense as a unit.

While the Examiner has national aspirations, it’s heartland remains in Munster, and therefore the Ireland South constituency. The closest to a Midlands–North-West media outlet is iRadio, a youth oriented music radio station covering, roughly, the northern half of the country. Hardly the best place for in depth reporting on the latest issues from Berlaymont.

“What is now called Midlands Northwest includes Louth, which is neither in the midlands, nor in the north, nor in the west,” says Barry Andrews (FF). “Louth is in the same constituency as Killybegs, the Aran islands, Achill island. There is an issue here. And from a planning point of view, many of the people who work in Dublin live in the commuter belt.”

In a submission to the electoral commission, Andrews proposed a new constituency, incorporating the counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath and Kildare.

“I think there is a logic to it. There is no logic to Midlands–North-West,” he said.

Andrews suggests this constituency be named North East Leinster (presumably since that would be less controversial among commuter county denizens than “Greater Dublin”) though history buffs will note that its proposed extent maps almost exactly to the medieval Pale. It’s unlikely though that any MEP wants to be known as the representative of the Pale. Whether any beyond its boundaries would embrace the title of Wild Irish is a moot point left as an exercise for the reader.

What the proposal does do however is emphasise there are no “natural” or self -evident boundaries for EU constituencies, and getting the word out from Brussels will continue to be a challenge.