Ireland’s MEPs have taken up their seats at the European Parliament, with the first session scheduled for today 1 July.
The opening three-day meeting will see the formal implementation of the constitution of the parliament as MEPs elect their president and 14 vice-presidents.
Europe’s presidency is currently a matter of bitter dispute between the United Kingdom and other powerful EU countries, including France and Germany, amid strong speculation that British Prime Minister David Cameron – the main opponent of Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid for the role -– will force a vote at the parliament.
Meanwhile, concerns over the rise of the far right in Europe dominated proceedings at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on EU Affairs ahead of the Strasbourg session.
Committee chair Dominic Hannigan said the European elections “resulted in significant gains for … far-right, anti-EU parties [that] enjoyed unprecedented successes in France, Britain and Denmark.”
He added that while pro-European parties of the centre right and centre left continue to control the parliament, the elections “pose serious questions about Europe’s response to the unprecedented economic crisis and the future direction of European integration”.
Hannigan said the meeting offered Irish politicians a “sensible opportunity” to hear the distinct views of political scientist Prof Gail McElroy and Brussels-based Irish Times journalist Suzanne Lynch, both of whom were special guest speakers.
“Of interest to the committee will be the extent to which pan-European issues figured in the campaign, the relatively low turnout across the union of 43 per cent, as well as how the surge in anti-establishment MEPs will impact on the work of the European Parliament,” he said.
Prof McElroy told the committee that the number of far-right politicians did not increase much, contrary to publicly held views.
“There was a lot of media coverage of European elections and if you read the newspapers you would think that there was a kind of broad sweep of far-right parties rising across Europe and at the doors of European Parliament.
“There has been a rise to some extent of Eurosceptic and the far-right parties but quite frankly it has been overstated.”
Prof McElroy said the committee should bear in mind that there are no far-right parties in the majority of EU member states, and that five far-right parties lost representation in the incoming parliament.
Concerns over the perceived rise of the far right have taken on new urgency in recent days following the defection of Fianna Fáil MEP Brian Crowley to the Eurosceptics group from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats.
Crowley was expelled from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party by leader Micheál Martin, who criticised the Tory-led conservative group as containing “racist, xenophobic [and] homophobic” elements.
Incumbent MEP Crowley, elected in Ireland South, was among 11 Irish members taking their posts in Strasbourg, most of whom are new to the European Parliament.
They include Dublin MEPs Lynn Boylan (Sinn Féin), Nessa Childers (independent) and Brian Hayes (Fine Gael), Midlands North West members Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (ind), Matt Carthy (SF), Mairead McGuinness (FG) and Marian Harkin (ind), and South MEPs Liadh Ní Riada (SF), Sean Kelly (FG) and Deirdre Clune (FG).