Our MEPs matter even if we cannot see what they are up to…

Mary Fitzgerald writes in today’s Irish Times about how European issues rarely seem to rise in the European campaigns. When it does arise with any intensity, as it did in The Politics Show debate, it’s clear that some of the political parties themselves have only the slimmest understanding of how they relate to Brussels. Diane Dodds attacks Northern Ireland’s three sitting MEPs for not writing to Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at Defra in London about the planned cut in Dairy Export Refunds.In fact, that is the Executive’s natural route to Defra; but not an MEPs. That’s how Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew, and DETI Minister Arlene Foster jointly lobbied a UK administration that was minded at the time to advise the Council of Ministers pull the subsidies, as poor value for money for UK taxpayers.

In fact, Bairbre de Brun was on a cross border lobby trip to discuss the Farm Waste Management Scheme with the Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel the day after a disastrous collapse in diary auction prices last October. But it afforded them an opportunity to make early representations on the dairy problem to the person charged with preparing agriculture related legislation for the European Parliament.

But the chief conduit for making representations to the Council of Ministers (the chief decision making body in the EU Institutions) are the permanent representations. These aren’t called Embassies, but that’s effectively what they are, only to the power of 10. The Irish Permanent Representation for instance has 100 staff (that’s nearly fifth of the DFA’s total staff numbers, for scale).

They contain a number of permanent officers from other departments. The UK’s Defra representation in Brussels is substantial, and is headed up by Tim Render. He’s the guy that the two Unionist MEPs, Jim Allister and Jim Nicholson both targeted in January, just ahead of the Council of Minister’s meeting in January.

In the end the Council voted in favour of, in the words of the Commissioners own blog, “we have reintroduced export refunds in response to a genuine market crisis.”

The UK and Irish Permanent Reps are key, both in liaising with Fischer Boal at the Commission, and all the other country based Agriculture reps in advance of the Council of Ministers’ meeting. But here’s were it gets nebulous though (and why debate on who would make the best MEP is almost completely devoid of useful metrics of success or failure): it’s almost impossible to say what the actual effects of any individual MEP’s lobbying are. As one Sinn Fein source remarked to Slugger, “you don’t get things by grandstanding, you get it by chipping away at it”…

Though, whether you are Pro EU, or anti, simply ignoring the beast is not an option. And different countries perform markedly differently depending on how tuned in their MEPs and country lobbyists (the Parliament in Brussels is the second most lobbied parliament in the world). MEPs are often backstops to a elongated and complex chains of communication that, especially in areas like Northern Ireland with an extra layer of regional government, has a tendency to break down from time to time.

One Northern Ireland MEP discovered that when they raised the matter of compensation for the Dioxin scare last December (it began on 6th December) that the Executive had not raised the problem with Fischer Boal’s office; who were under the impression that the whole thing had been a Republic only problem. Whilst southern farmers had their deal by Christmas Eve, it was months before those in Northern Ireland would get anything.

So, although it will likely have a marginal effect on the outcome, before you cast your vote on Thursday, you might want to have a furtle around on Google and do a wee bit of digging on the candidates and then take an educated guess on who you think can actually do the best job of scrutinising and lobbying in the wider local self interest.

Let’s hope whoever briefed Mrs Dodds has been doing a little boning up of their own, before she (as seems likely) crosses the win line on Thursday…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty