Democracy and Declarations: The Cost of an MEP

Note: This article was originally published at OneEurope.

The commonly known fact is that there are 754 Members of the European Parliament. What is less commonly known is how many of them show up, how often they appear and what they vote for.

Given that the European Parliament Budget for 2012 was €1718 billion, with 24% of that dedicated to MEP expenses, the importance of arriving and voting consistently cannot be undermined. One of the most commonly voiced complaints about the European Parliament is its inherent democratic deficit. So the question is: are MEPs worth the cash?

For the almost indescribably large sum of money spent on the Parliament, which is still just 1% of the general European Union budget, European citizens may not be getting value for money.

VoteWatch Europe indicates that participation is strongest by Austrian MEPs, who participate in roll call votes over 91% of the time in Parliament. On the lower end of the scale, Malta has the dubious honour of being the least participative state, present 71% of the time.

On an individual level, many MEPs are highly participative and demonstrate strong records for appearing, voting and contributing in all areas of parliamentary discourse. Iosif Matula of Romania has participated in 99.56% of votes and was elected to the Parliament for the first time in 2009.

Brian Crowley of Ireland has the poorest attendance score at 27.42%. Crowley was first elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and gained the largest number of first preference votes in the 2009 European elections in Ireland South, where he secured over 132,000 votes, pushing him into first place with ease. If Brian Crowley neglects to attend, should he then receive the €7,056.87 salary per month of an MEP?

Post tax, that salary emerges as €6,200 and MEPs may also be subject to national taxation. Further, the expenses system at the European Parliament is extensive. In 2011, each MEP was allowed expenses of €4,299 per month. MEPs are further refunded the cost of travel to and from their meetings up to a maximum of a business class air fare. There are also fixed expenses to cover the cost of additional baggage and motorway tolls. Further, there are fixed allowances for travel outside an MEP’s home country for a purpose other than official meetings- in 2010, that expense was capped at over €4000 per annum.

Finally, Parliament pays €304 per day of attendance at official meetings, which is halved if MEPs don’t fulfill more than 50% attendance. Parliament also pays a further €152 per day plus accommodation and breakfast expenses, for meetings attended by MEPs outside of the European Community.

It is quite clear that to be an MEP is to have a significant income with very little oversight from your member state. Some MEP’s elect to demonstrate their expenses and the actual oversight within the European institutions is quite good. But speaking as someone from Ireland who works in politics, the oversight system here isn’t strong and the details of these payments and expenses are not known or advertised.

Austerity is rife across Europe, and more and more people in the middle and working classes are suffering daily under the weight of new taxes, new charges, heightened contributions and pay cuts. Members of the European Parliament need to sit at the same table as the rest of us. If you’re only showing up 27% of the time, you should only get 27% of that pay. Democracy begins right here, but the deficit seems wider than ever.


Asylum seekers and the perils of seeking protection in Ireland

Note: This article was originally published on WorldIrish.

April 23rd was the scheduled national day of action to end institutional living and to support asylum seekers in accessing their human rights.

Make no mistake about this: an asylum seeker is very much alone.

In the words of A A Gill, there is no helpful guidebook on the topic. As an asylum seeker, you are thrust into the wind with nothing to help you and no way out of your situation until another country decides that you are worthy of residence on their land.

Across the world in different places, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced every year. They pick up what they can and abandon their homes, their friends, their families, and flee. They try to find another place to start again and to live a life of dignity and respect.

At the moment it is estimated that over 1.3 million people have fled Syria. At Za’atari camp in Jordan, 140,000 people wait for judgement. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people arrive there every night. It has become the fifth largest city in Jordan. Safety has degenerated, riots are widespread, journalists have been beaten and women raped.

The largest refugee camp in the world is Dadaab, Kenya, where almost 425,000 people wait. It has been in existence for twenty two years.

In February 2013, 12.73% of those seeking asylum in Ireland were from Syria. 24% were from Nigeria. Pakistan, Albania and Afghanistan also featured strongly.

So far in 2013, 21 people have been named refugees in Ireland following extensive interview procedures. 148 have had their applications rejected, and 33 have been deported to other countries for a decision to be made in their cases. That means that 94% of the 2013 decisions have been negative.

330,000 people claimed asylum in the European Union in 2012; just 458 of those came to Ireland. They are a topic of conversation, not because they have fled strife and abandoned everything they own, but because of the way we treat them when they get here; a scandal that goes unaddressed every time it is questioned.

On arrival in Ireland, asylum seekers are housed in the Direct Provision system, which means they are given room and board in one of thirty five centres nationally.

These centres have been converted from other purposes, former hotels and guesthouses or convents. One of them is a mobile home site. There are currently 4,788 persons in the system, and 34% of them are children.

On average, asylum seekers spend over three years waiting for a decision in their case. An Irish family would find it repulsive to live with four other people in one room for over thirty six months. But we expect other people to accept it, even though they have already seen more pain than we can imagine. We give adult asylum seekers just €19.10 per week to survive on.

On March 27th, member states approved proposals for the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). They agreed that reception conditions for asylum seekers must be better and that unaccompanied minors must be provided for.

I find it ironic that during Ireland’s term holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, they are one of only two states that have yet to step in line with a 2003 Directive on asylum reception conditions.

Currently, asylum seekers are not allowed to seek employment in Ireland. Justice Minister Alan Shatter has said that to extend the right to work to asylum seekers would have a negative impact on asylum claims because they would rise so quickly, like they did in 1999. The Minister neglected to mention the upsurge in asylum applications internationally following the Kosovo War in 1999.

Detractors will say that asylum seekers are scammers. I won’t deny that some people came to Ireland because of the economic promise it held in the 2000s, but I don’t need to point out that those days are so far in the past that it is almost hard to recall them to memory.

In the end, the Direct Provision system is an institution of poverty and depravity. It facilitates illness, racism, bigotry and anxiety. It offers no development and gives no access to further education, employment or opportunity. It is a scandal on the scale of the Magdalene Laundries.

We cannot wait any longer to fix this.

Asylum seekers are too frightened to talk because they fear repercussions. What sort of world is it where we allow almost 5,000 people to live like animals without demanding better, demanding more? We have stripped these people of their dignity for long enough. They are people, not numbers, not foreigners, not statistics.

April 23rd was the scheduled national day of action to end institutional living for almost 5,000 people who have no voice of their own. It’s the sort of horror we have covered up too often in the past, but we have no need to cover it up for the future.

Thatcher and Irish Labour (The Irish Times, April 2013)

Sir, – Brian Patterson (April 22nd) may wish to know that while Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn attended the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, both Taoiseach and Tánaiste remained in Ireland on regular Dáil business, while President Higgins travelled to Strasbourg to give a speech before the European Parliament.

How can we castigate Labour for the routine fulfilment of diplomatic duty in attending a funeral? Shortly, people will blame the Labour Party if they wake up with a headache – just because it’s convenient. It’s ridiculous. – Yours, etc,

Rockboro Road,

Treading Water: Comprehending the efforts to secure maritime policy for the European Union

Maritime policy is far removed from the lives of most EU citizens.  It is difficult to comprehend just how many policy decisions are required to regulate Europe’s oceans.

On April 8th and 9th, as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a Maritime Seminar took place in Dublin Castle to discuss the future of ocean security and surveillance.

Doused in jargon and policy-laden, the conference brought to light the vast amount of work needed to ensure the best regulation of the EU’s various seas.  We are all familiar with the Celtic Sea thanks to Ireland’s long coastline, but the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Mediterranean and Black Seas, as well as the Arctic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay all fall within the remit of EU maritime policies.  As do bodies of water in the middle of the Indian Ocean because of small European islands in the area.

It is currently estimated that over two thirds of EU borders are coastline; without a doubt, Europe is inextricably linked to the sea.

As if the geographic scope wasn’t enough, adding further confusion to the issue is the fact that the various bodies of water are used for different things, by different countries, at different times.  Maritime policy is not limited to fishing and conservation, but also deals with research, sustainable energy, shipping regulations, port business, and security.

The seminar in Dublin, entitled “Challenges and Opportunities in Maritime Security and Surveillance for Effective Governance and Innovation in the EU’s Maritime Domain”, focused on the need to regulate actions on the seas so as to ensure safety, without stifling innovation.

Irish Minister for Justice Alan Shatter TD stated that “We need to focus on how we can improve cooperation between all the various actors, whether that be naval forces, coastguards, customs, police or other Member State security actors engaged in delivering maritime security, safety and surveillance within the Union.”  Juggling the need for security with the livelihoods of millions of citizens dependent on the sea further complicated the discussions.

A topic of discussion throughout the seminar was the need for international cooperation.  It has been recognised that national naval forces can play a key role in preventing and responding to illicit activities on the high seas.

It was in this light that the European Maritime Surveillance (MARUSR) programme was discussed. MARSUR has been in development since 2006, and is intended to facilitate the sharing of data and information throughout Europe’s navies, integrating valuable data for the safety of the seventeen member states (plus Norway) currently involved.  MARSUR is intended to be fully operational by 2014, and was without doubt one of the high points of discussion for the uninitiated.

Mr Klaus Roesler, Director of Operations at Frontex, the EU border protection agency, outlined the core security challenges for EU seas, including the trafficking of drugs and people, illegal migration and organised crime.  Frontex itself has come under fire in recent years from Human Rights Watch for their alleged role in the mistreatment of immigrants in Greece, adding to the challenges of ensuring maritime security across the EU.[1]

 Minister Shatter noted the numerous threats on the high seas, such as piracy, terrorism, trafficking and uncontrolled migration, and reiterated the need for cooperation, which is without a doubt necessary for projects of this scope.

The seminar as a whole provided a significant insight into the depth of Europe’s oceans and the wide range of policies required to keep the water safe, and to keep Europeans safe when they take to it.

Redrawing the Margins

On April 2nd, famed political commentator and academic Noam Chomsky spoke to a crowd of over one thousand in UCD’s O’Reilly Hall. Organiser Conor Ryan felt there was a large significance to the event: “This may well be the last time Chomsky visits Ireland, marking it as one of the most engaging and I believe important talks if not of the last few years, then certainly of this year.” One of the most cited authors in the world, Chomsky didn’t disappoint. He posed the question “What is the world going to look like in 100 years?” and outlined his chilling belief that if historians still exist at that time, they will look back and see a society marching to its doom.

Chomsky’s trademark humour and wit filled the hall with electricity, but his points were profound and heartfelt. One person in attendance asked for ideas on how to fix things in order that we might avoid this impending doom. With a chuckle, Chomsky stated that having spoken to thousands of people in thousands of places, the difference between poor and privilege is easily recognisable to him. The privileged, he said, ask what can be done, while the poor outline what they are already doing.

The hall tittered with laughter, but the point resonated. For the man of privilege who asked that question, it must have been somewhat embarrassing to face the truth of what we had just heard. As the privileged few, we often take an interest in social justice, women’s rights and the welfare of the disadvantaged. The poor, the desperate, the disadvantaged – they valiantly strive to take care of themselves.

It has just emerged that the unemployment figure for those under 25 in Ireland now stands at 30.8%, an increase of 0.4% since January. 23.5% of young people across the 27 EU member states are out of work. In England, people are surviving on welfare payments of £53 a week, or £7.50 a day. The strain is showing now more than ever.

This week in the Sunday Times, A A Gill outlined the struggle of refugees from Syria, thousands destined for camps full of violence and oppression, running from a war they didn’t make and can’t avoid. 330,000 people claimed asylum in the European Union in 2012; just 458 of those came to Ireland, where they are currently a topic of conversation in newspapers nationwide. They are a topic of conversation, not because they have fled strife and abandoned everything they own, but because of the way we treat them when they get here; a scandal that goes unaddressed every time it is questioned.

Asylum seekers represent just about 0.1% of the population in Ireland. They come from many places with many stories and make a claim for protection, sanctuary, safety. We force them into the Direct Provision system, which costs the state €69 million a year. Asylum seekers are housed in almost forty centres nationwide, and given a paltry €19.10 per adult per week to survive on. The Irish state does not allow them to work; nor do we expedite their applications for protection. Most asylum seekers wait five years or more to hear a decision in their case.

It is extremely difficult to get work in Ireland. But these people should have the chance to find some, and the rest of us should wish them luck in their endeavours. The fact is that many of us leave Ireland to seek opportunity elsewhere; it’s not the same as asylum, but we expect respect and care in the states we journey to. Why are we so hypocritical that we cannot extend the once famed Irish hospitality to those who may need a great deal of help?

The Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union has given Ireland a core role in developing asylum policy across the EU in 2013. On March 27th, member states approved proposals for the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). They agreed that reception conditions for asylum seekers must be better and that unaccompanied minors must be provided for. The representatives also worked to recast EURODAC, a European database which allows law enforcement officers to access fingerprints of asylum seekers to prevent, detect or investigate crime.

EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström noted that CEAS has been her top priority, and that completing its adoption would be ‘historic’. She noted that such a system has been debated at European level since 1999. Despite words used in press releases about fairness, better quality and faster decisions, the reality is somewhat different.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter TD made a comment to the Irish Times last week regarding asylum seekers and the right to work. He said that to extend the right to work to asylum seekers would have a negative impact on asylum claims because they would rise so quickly, like they did in 1999. His point about economic migration may hold true for some applicants, but the Minister neglected to mention the upsurge in asylum applications internationally following the Kosovo War in 1999.

I needn’t remind the Minister that many Irish people have fled the state to find work elsewhere; in Ireland jobs are like gold dust – rare and coveted, almost mythical in nature. Asylum seekers aren’t mining for gold; they are mining for the chance to survive.

There is an attitude in Ireland that immigrants are scammers and fraudsters. We have plenty of our own scammers, but we give them bonuses and let them walk free. Noam Chomsky was right; the disadvantaged make their own efforts, while the rest of us stand by and ask poignant questions. No matter how good our intentions, it is abundantly clear that words alone mean nothing; we need to get up, redraw the margins and get to work.