Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Opposition must end charade of parliament without power

WITH Greece, Ireland has reason for complacency about the future of its politics. This is one of the findings of this week's Eurobarometer Survey into voting intentions in the European Parliament elections on June 5. Elsewhere the picture is darker. However much we may feel our democracy has been bruised and damaged by the people responsible for it, the professional practitioners, comparatively speaking it is in good shape.

Greece has the edge on us, by one percentage point. There, 62pc of its population is 'interested' in the forthcoming European elections as against 61 per cent in Ireland.

After that, Denmark, Germany and France stand out together, at 45-46pc of their electorate 'interested' in the same event. A similar, global figure for the EU as a whole registers 44pc, but within this there are wide variations. Malta, for example, has a much higher interest than Ireland; so do countries we might think of as 'marginal', like Cyprus and Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania. There is also a marked variation in interest as between national rather than European affairs.

There is the feeling that a vote in the European elections will not change anything. There is a lack of knowledge about the European Parliament. It is not seen as dealing with the problems that concern people. And people feel that they are not sufficiently represented. Nor are they. How can the people of Leinster feel that they are represented by three elected MEPs on any of the key issues in their lives?

And what are the issues? Overwhelmingly, the people of Europe make unemployment the top issue. In Greece 83 per cent of voters make it their first requirement. A year ago, MEPs campaigning, not for re-election but for the Lisbon Treaty, promised that a 'Yes' vote would deliver jobs. Posters promised it. It was a piece of electioneering nonsense, and a year later, this will become evident.

The second issue of importance, among people generally, is the issue of economic growth and stability. Again, the linkage between the promise, a year ago, and the possibility of delivery now, has largely disintegrated. On inflation and the purchasing power of the euro in member-states, the third most important consideration, the same applies.

It is not surprising that the European Parliament, which commissioned the survey, is alarmed. Candidates from the main parties, all of whom are in a pact to maintain the fiction that they matter in Europe, will not be able to answer any of the big questions.

They are all prepared for the small ones and are setting the big ones aside. They should be faced with them by the electorate. This will depend on the numbers who decide to participate, and on this score Ireland promises to perform better, on the whole, than other European countries.

But people are in no mood to be lied to. They are angry about the deprivation of their own power and the undermining of democracy which once was a simple matter and has now become depressingly complex.

Faced with our own natural, understandable self-assurance, deriving from our greater commitment to voting and to democracy, we should bear in mind that the largest state of all in the EU, Germany, has not yet ratified and is having serious and fresh thoughts about the Lisbon Treaty.

These in part have been affected by disturbing details from the German Ministry of Justice that 84pc of the country's laws now come from Brussels, with only 16pc coming from Berlin. Constitutionally, this is wrong, as it is here.

The adoption of these European laws by the German Government takes place in the Council of Ministers, and not in the German Parliament. That, too, is wrong. Is it not, therefore, the case that Germany is not a parliamentary democracy at all? In large areas of legislation the separation of powers as a fundamental constitutional principle has been cancelled out.

The Lisbon Treaty contains no mechanism for restoring national competencies in Germany, or indeed here.

What sort of democracy is that? Is it not surprising that most German people have a fundamentally positive attitude to European integration, notwithstanding this huge deficit? And we are the same. At the same time, there is the growing feeling that something has gone wrong. We have a complex, intricate, mammoth institution. We cannot stop it or reverse its steady move towards greater centralisation.

These thoughts are largely taken from the former German President, Roman Herzog, who was also, formerly, the President of the German Constitutional Court which is now looking into the Lisbon Treaty. We should have followed that example and handed over to the Supreme Court the function of considering the wider implications of last year's decision, if a mode for doing this could have been devised.

At the heart of this set of circumstance there lies an anomaly. While we are forced to accept that those in power seem to be able to reverse the people's choice and gather promises at summit meetings, while at the same time they replicate in their form of government a denial of proper democracy in the Dail and Seanad, there is a nonsense in the Opposition parties going along with this.

Fine Gael and Labour espouse democracy. Their case is built on this approach, normal to democratic oppositions. Yet both these parties are going into the European elections, seven weeks hence, knowing that the European Parliament they want to have members elected to is largely a pastiche of a working democracy, powerless and unable to pass laws.