A relatively low voter turnout in European elections can be attributed to inadequate media coverage afforded to the European Parliament – in contrast to the European Commission and European Council – despite 70 per cent of all laws in Ireland emanating from the EU, writes Fianna Fáil MEP for Dublin, Barry Andrews.
What do WWE Smackdown, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and RTÉ’s European Parliament Report all have in common? Some may make the connection between Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian Detective of the Agatha Christie novels and the European Union HQ which, of course, is also famously Belgian. Perhaps others will draw comparison between the incredible theatrics that we have become familiar with in WWE to that of the antics of some members of the European Parliament? However both comparisons, on this occasion, would be incorrect.
The correct answer is these are programmes that will all be broadcasting on our screens on digital terrestrial TV Saturday morning at 10:40. My point, of course, is not to take away from the entertainment value of WWE or Hercule Poirot but to highlight the absurd timing for our national broadcaster to offer a report from the European Parliament.
“With the European elections only seven months away I think there needs to be a serious discussion regarding the coverage that is being provided of the European Parliament.”
Barry Andrews MEP
Saturday mornings are, for many, an opportunity to switch off from the serious discussion points of the week, to catch up with the family, to do the sports run, to have a walk and clear the head or to let the kids watch some TV. Only the hardcore political junkies are setting a reminder to tune in to the European Parliament Report on RTÉ One at 10:40 on a Saturday.
Recently some comments I made at an event in Dublin were picked up by a journalist when I noted that coverage of the European Parliament is very limited and that this is a problem given that democracy is under threat all across the world. While not the first time that I have made these observations, it is the first time that they have been reported, perhaps owing to the direct mention of the national broadcaster when I added: “I think that there is major coverage in RTÉ of the European Council and the European Commission, but not of the European Parliament.”
Coverage of the European Parliament, or lack thereof, in my view has a direct impact on voter turnout in the European elections. Ireland already ranks in the bottom half when it comes to voter turnout compared to our EU neighbours. Our highest turnout for a European election was 68 per cent in 1989. In the subsequent 1994 European election, turnout was only 44 per cent and in the most recent 2019 European election there was a turnout of 49 per cent. Turnout for our general elections consistently hovers between 65 and 66 per cent.
It is hard not to link low turnout with lack of media coverage given that Ireland is one of the most pro-EU countries on the continent. A recent survey European Movement Ireland found that 88 per cent of people surveyed in the Republic support Ireland’s membership of the EU. The same survey found that 71 per cent of people in Northern Ireland who say they voted leave in the Brexit referendum support Ireland remaining a member of the EU.
A case could be made that voter turnout is lower for the European elections as they have less of an impact on people’s lives, however, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact 70 per cent of all laws in Ireland come from the EU. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament has significantly increased its powers. It can reject the EU budget, approve free trade agreements, dismiss the Commission and it acts as co-legislator with the European Council on most issues.
Despite decisions made in the European Parliament directly affecting the lives of people in Ireland, reporting on these debates and votes is simply not on the radar of many political journalists. I have made the point before that while 70 per cent of the laws in Ireland come from the EU, almost 100 per cent of the drama comes from the Houses of the Oireachtas and this is the television and radio that the consumer wants.
I mentioned in my earlier comments that democracy is under threat across the world; some speak of a democratic recession. In a functioning democracy, politicians need to be held accountable and media reporting is intrinsic to this as well as the democratic process. It does not help that there is also a perception (mainly perpetuated by Brexit) that Brussels is composed of bureaucrats that are far removed from the average EU citizen.
Accommodating the interests of 27 member states while delivering effective policies can be complicated and it can be difficult at times for the EU to reach citizens and show them the role that the EU plays in their daily life.
With the European elections only seven months away I think there needs to be a serious discussion regarding the coverage that is being provided of the European Parliament. It must be said that programmes such as the European Parliament Report are excellently researched and presented and, if nothing else, deserve to be broadcast at a more suitable time than 10:40 on a Saturday morning.
Of course, if you happen to miss the original broadcast of European Parliament Report you can catch the repeat…. at midnight on a Sunday night/Monday morning.