Aligning his party’s four MEPs to the European Liberals could weaken their ability to “deliver policy at a European level,” Brian Crowley, leader in the European Parliament of both the Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN) group and the Irish Fianna Fáil delegation, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Brian Crowley is chairman of the Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN) group in the European Parliament and heads the Fianna Fáil delegation there.
You have been an MEP for 14 years now. With the 2009 elections taking place in three months’ time, what do you expect to be the main issues, and is the build-up different to previous years?
All elections are exciting. Not all candidates like elections, and anybody who says they do is lying. From an Irish perspective, because the elections are based on individuals rather than party lists, it’s more interactive with the public. It’s also more pressurised as regards the issues that come up, because these tend to be local and national rather than European issues per se. So you don’t have the same depth or level of discussion of European issues that some people might anticipate.
The three big issues in Ireland will be the economy, which has a huge European impact; the Lisbon Treaty, which as we can see now has other aspects affecting it due to the discussions that are taking place; and the general question of where Ireland is going. There’s a desire among voters to see where the plan is for the future.
Do you believe, as many European politicians claim, that the EU responses to the financial crisis will stimulate voter turnout at the 2009 elections, or could it even have the opposite effect?
I think both arguments are equally valid, and the reality [in Ireland] is that everyone now recognises that if we weren’t in the EU, and the euro zone, we’d be in a lot more trouble than we are today.
So people do recognise that interdependence, to assist and help each other, and I think that’s equally true for large countries like Germany and France, not just small countries like Ireland.
There will always be nationalistic trends by ministers or governments, but I think everyone understands now that without collective, joint actions, we’re not going to solve these problems.
Do you think MEPs are doing enough to show citizens the European dimension of these problems?
I think a lot more could be done, to be honest. A lot of the debate at a European level, here in the European Parliament in particular, has been focused on criticising Barroso or Charlie McCreevy, rather than focusing on what the real issues are.
In a lot of ways, European leaders have overtaken the Parliament in operating on a global level, trying to reach an international agreement on the financial crisis. A lot of that is grandstanding of course, but what concrete proposals have come from the Parliament to try to do things on a global level? I think the Parliament has missed an opportunity to be seen as the leader of this debate.
What about the Lisbon Treaty? Do you think the economic crisis increases the likelihood of an Irish ‘yes’ in the second referendum?
I think if people were given the opportunity to vote now, they would be overwhelmingly in favour, partly because of the economic crisis, but also because they now recognise that some of the reasons they voted ‘no’ weren’t based on fact. They feel misled by some people on the ‘no’ side, and they want a chance to correct that.
And the timing of the second referendum – when do you expect it to take place?
The Irish government has set down October because they see a technical difficulty in getting agreement from the European Council secretariat and legal services with regards to the guarantees that we would require.
Personally, I’d love to hold it tomorrow. I think the sooner we do it the better. It would put more certainty and stability into the whole debate and would put pressure on Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic to ratify as well. At the moment everyone is waiting for Ireland.
If Ireland votes ‘no’ again, what do you think will happen?
To be honest, and I’m not saying this as scare-mongering, I think patience will have run out among our colleagues in Europe, and they will want to see the development of a two-speed Europe. The absolute worst-case scenario is that Ireland will lose its commissioner under Nice, while the other 26 keep theirs.
At the same time, I think that all countries now recognise that maybe they made a mistake in agreeing to give up the commissioner [under the terms of Nice and pre-Irish concessions Lisbon] and they may be happy to have the opportunity – through the back door, and with Ireland as an excuse – to retain their commissioner. I don’t have any definitive information showing that, but my informed discussions with colleagues and other governments is certainly showing this to be the case.
The negotiation of Nice, where it took four days for government leaders to come together and agree on the final draft text, proved that it wasn’t a finished debate. There were always ‘hangover’ issues, and it was totally patchwork. I blame the French Presidency for that, and Chirac in particular, trying to re-nationalise Europe.
What role do you think Libertas will play, both in the elections and Lisbon II?
I’m a democrat, I’m a politician – I welcome anybody onto the field, so long as they play by the same rules as everybody else. I think during the referendum campaign in Ireland, Libertas were let away with an awful lot and not challenged or scrutinised as much as they should have been.
But now that they’re entering the purely political arena, it’s a different ball game. Let’s see what they represent, what policies they put forward, and then challenge them on those, rather than this nebulous, utopian ideal they currently have. I’ve yet to see any policy from them, what they would stand for, what they would do differently or how they’d do it differently. If I knew who the Libertas candidates were, I could give an opinion, but no-one does.
Ganley is a good operator, but in a different field.
After the June elections, how do you see the new Parliament taking shape? Is there, as some commentators suggest, an opportunity for parties of the extreme left and right to do better than in previous years?
It’s possible, yes, but then there have always been extreme lefts and rights in the parliament. What I think you’ll find is that, in this time of economic crisis, rather than going to the fringes, people will want stability and certainty and will push towards the centre.
I think the balance between the groups will be more or less the same, I don’t foresee any dramatic changes. I think the EPP-ED will still be the biggest group, even if the Conservatives leave, and the Socialists will be the second group.
By the way, I don’t think the Tories will leave the EPP-ED. I’ve been here [in the Parliament] for 14 years, and for 14 years the Tories have been leaving the EPP-ED.
Given recent suggestions that your party [Fianna Fáil] will leave the UEN group and eventually join the liberal ALDE group after the elections, perhaps the Tories could use the UEN as their new party platform?
Everything is possible, but nothing is decided. For ourselves, nothing is decided yet, all this will happen after the elections. Fianna Fáil have been linked with the liberals in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for a number of years, but that’s different to the Parliament.
There’s a lot of differences between what the ALDE group stands for here in the Parliament and what we’d like to see happening: even though there are some areas where we agree, there are a lot of divergences too. This will all be clarified after the elections.
So do you think Fianna Fáil and the liberals would be a bad fit?
Everybody wants Fianna Fáil. We’re a big party, we’ve been in government a long time, and we’re seen as good operators at European level. So everybody wants us, but not everybody can have us. I think that we as a party can bring great things to any group that we’re in.
I think the UEN has worked well for Ireland and for Fianna Fáil, we’ve been able to deliver policy at a European level, partly because I’m the leader. If I weren’t the leader, if I were part of another group, would we be able to do that?