20 December, 2019

European Parliament update, six months on...

Well, that was quick.

Just over six months into my mandate as a Member of the European Parliament for Dublin, and it has been busy!

I called it the “Climate Change Election” when I launched my campaign last April, and thankfully there’s been some progress on this at the European level.  The headline item has been the announcement of a European Green Deal. First announced by Ursula von der Leyen the new European Commission President early in her mandate, she fleshed this out in more detail in early December, and we’ll see more details emerge by early March, This will fulfil her promise to launch an ambitious programme within one hundred days of taking office. Radical changes are needed in energy, transport, buildings and agriculture to deliver on this. We'll know more in the Spring of 2020 about the level of ambition from the new Commission and Parliament.

For me it has been a steep learning curve. Firstly, the balance of powers between the different European Union institutions have become clearer to me. The European Parliament is an amending legislature. We can’t initiate new laws, but we can modify proposals that come from the European Commission, composed of twenty-seven European Commissioners, including Ireland’s own Phil Hogan who now looks after trade issues, having previously had responsibility for agriculture. Apart from von der Layen it will be interesting to watch two senior Commissioners: Margrethe Vestager from Denmark who leads on digital issues, and Frans Timmermans a former Foreign Affairs Minister of the Netherlands who will look after the implementation of the Green Deal. I sit on the TRAN Committee (short for transport) as well as ITRE (which has responsibility for industry, telecoms, research and energy). I also keep a watching brief on REGI (which deals with urban and regional affairs). All three committees have key roles to play in tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

Remember that the European Union doesn’t and can’t tackle everything: under the principal of ‘subsidiarity’ it can only address issues that the Member States have decided should be dealt with at European level. That means we can’t tackle housing issues, but I can put pressure on the European Investment Bank and other bodies to ramp up their focus on these issues. When it comes to tackling climate change the EU does have an important role: it sets targets and provides support to countries to ensure that they are achieved. For instance the European Performance of Buildings Directive ensures that new buildings have to meet an A energy rating, and there will be more work on this front in the years ahead. I want to try and ensure that local authority homes are retro-fitted with insulation, draught-proofing and new heating systems, to ensure that fuel poverty is tackled, and cold damp homes are a thing of the past.

The Irish Green Party is part of the Greens/European Free Alliance group within the Parliament. We comprise seventy-four members, or almost 10% of the 751 seat Parliament, and we have a pretty good track record in making substantive and considered amendments to proposed laws. Last week I participated in the Transport Committee and we burnt the midnight oil to improve the working conditions and driving times of lorry drivers. A lot of drafting was put into improving road safety and worker’s rights to ensure that drivers get proper breaks and don’t sleep in their cabs for weeks on end. We eventually finished our work at 6:45am. Talk about a baptism of fire! Of course, any changes we make must be signed off by the relevant Transport Ministers from every country in the European Union, and it remains to be seen whether our Minister Shane Ross TD will give these changes the green light.

The European Parliament sits in Brussels in Belgium most weeks, and then in Strasbourg in France one week in four. It is a crazy set-up, involving huge amounts of travel. The French refuse to give up on Strasbourg, so we all hop onto a charter train once a month to head down to Eastern France where the hoteliers rub their hands at the prospect of hundreds of MEPs and their staff arriving for four days. Back in Brussels, I’ve rented an apartment about fifteen minutes by bike away from the Parliament in an area called St.Gilles: it is the Brussels equivalent of Stoneybatter. Rents are cheaper than Dublin, and there’s much more protection for tenants enshrined in law.

I’m trying not to fly over and back every week, and around one trip in four I take the ferry to Holyhead from Dublin Port. From there I take a four-hour long train-ride to London Euston. Then I walk ten minutes down the Euston Road to St. Pancras, and hop on a Eurostar for a two-hour ride to Brussels Midi. This takes about twelve hours from door-to-door. One issue I’m working on in Brussels is to try and ensure rail times are better scheduled and speeds improved. In addition, we need to ensure that air travel pays its fair share of taxes, compared to rail journeys.

Over the last six months we’ve seen the UK head closer to Brexit, now inevitable with the Conservatives winning last week’s election. We’ll lose our UK colleagues, but I suspect there will be renewed efforts by Scottish nationalists to secede from the UK and rejoin the EU. Brexit brings a united Ireland closer. A useful exercise would be to examine how policies in health, education and policing could be coordinated north and south of the border, and how best to address the very real concerns from northern Unionists about being isolated. Hopefully, the Northern Ireland Assembly will reconvene early in the new year.

It has been a roller-coaster of a year. It has been amazing to see so many greens elected around Ireland and Europe, and brilliant to see Joe O’Brien elected as a TD in Dublin Fingal in the recent by-elections. It is great to have my colleague Grace O’Sullivan MEP for Ireland South as a sounding board for ideas and plans. A real personal success for me was to give my first speech as Gaeilge in the Parliament. I couldn’t have done it with fantastic support from my team in Brussels and Dublin. As we head towards 2020 which will bring a General Election in Ireland, I’ll be working on progressing laws to make the Green Deal a reality in Europe; to tackle climate change and bring about a just transition at home, and in Europe. We'll be working closely with our Green councillors hard at work in Councils all over Ireland, and with our TDs Eamon Ryan, Catherine Martin and Joe O'Brien in the Dáil, as well as Pippa Hackett in the Seanad, and Clare Bailey  and Rachel Woods, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Northern Ireland. 

Nollaig Shona Daoibh!