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Rural voices in the European Parliament

In the first of a series of articles looking at the upcoming European Elections we’re looking at the contesting voices claiming to be best placed to represent rural communities interests in the EU.

On the 24th of May local and European elections will be held, the Members of European Parliament (MEPs) elected will have a role in shaping important policies for rural communities such as the EU Common Agricultural & Common Fisheries Policy, regional funding & funding for various local groups through a range of EU funds. With campaigns officially getting underway this week we’re taking a look at what the various candidates are offering rural areas.

Currently the eight MEPs representing the largely rural constituencies of Ireland south & the border, midlands and north west constituencies sit on a number of important committees covering important policy areas for rural Ireland, such as the fisheries, agriculture, budget, and the environment committee, as well as having a vote on agriculture and environmental policy and the overall budget of the EU. In this election these constituencies will elect nine MEPs, given the challenges facing rural Ireland having MEPs who are willing to stand up for the interest of rural communities is vital.

MEPs regardless of what committees they sit on also vote on the overall EU budget so have a direct role in deciding whether or not more money is provide for schemes which benefit rural communities or if money is taken away from these schemes. With the challenges created by Brexit still not resolved it is also important that Ireland elects MEPs that will be a strong voice for rural communities as both agriculture and the Irish fishing industry will suffer if the UK leaves the customs union and the common market. Furthermore the loss of UK contributions post Brexit will increase pressure to cut large funds like CAP before cutting funds more popular with urban voters. 

Alongside the MEPs seeking reelection their are numerous other candidates running on platforms which focus on rural issues. Issues such as the beef plan protests, and the loss of businesses and services  in rural towns and villages have shown rural communities who have largely missed out on the benefits of economic growth feel ignored by the political establishment, while in other parts of Europe this has seen rural voters support far right populists  this has not been the case so far in Ireland, and the wide spread support for the repeal of the 8th amendment in rural constituencies last year suggests there is more possibility of progressive candidates capitalising on rural discontent than right wing populist candidates

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the lose of services such as post offices has caused problems for a number of rural communities

While almost all of the candidates running make some claim to defend rural communities what this means varies from candidate to candidate with some such as the Fine Gael candidates claiming to defend rural interests despite  actively supporting the EU policies such as unfair trade deals an unbalanced CAP, and cuts to the CAP budget while increasing military spending which negatively affect rural Ireland. While others reduce the issues facing rural communities to a simple rural vs urban issue, ignoring that the economic and political policies that have created problems in rural communities is causing similar problems in disadvantaged urban areas.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are running 9 candidates across the two constituencies, Fine Gael will of course want to maintain its traditional rural support base among large farmers and rural business owners hence Fine Gaels quiet opposition to CAP front loading and other measures proposed to make CAP fairer, but would negatively impact the largest farmers (essentially echoing the IFA’s position on a number of issues). However the selection of high profile candidates to stand for Fine Gael in both the borders midlands and west (Maria Walsh)& Dublin (Mark Durkan) suggests that the party is not overly concerned about courting the farmers vote.

Fianna Fail will also want to win back a seat after their only MEP Brian Crowley (absent since his election) retires. Having been effectively absent from EU policy making since 2014. Fianna Fáil’s European party, ALDE, has however supported the proposed cuts to CAP in the next EP budget so it is likely that Fianna Fail will vote in favour of this proposal.

Sinn Féin MEPs Matt Carthy and Liadh Ni Riada are seeking reelection in the Border Midlands and West & Ireland south respectively, While Luke Ming Flanagan who sits in the same political group in the European parliament as Sinn Fein is also seeking reelection in the Border Midlands and West constituency and has emphasised his role as a member of the  agriculture committee

Several independent and small party candidates have also made rural issues part of their campaigns, the Green party candidate for Ireland west, Saoirse McHugh’ has highlighted that the current model of farming supported by the common agricultural policy mostly benefits large farmers. Liam Minehan an independent candidate running in Ireland south has been an active member in the campaign against Irish waters plan to pipe water from the Shannon to Dublin.

Gombeen politics

Aside from the candidates outlined above there is also a number of other candidates representing a typical gombeen approach to Irish politics, namely adopting the persona of a defender of rural interests but offering little in the way of real alternatives to either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, chief among these would be Peter Casey who claims to want to defend rural Ireland despite his only action of note during his failed presidential campaign being his continued attacks on travellers status as an ethnic minority, in a desperate attempt to generate controversy in order to get his name in the media.

He has doubled down on this tactic by expanding his attack to include immigrants, as is the lack of invest, lack of employment or cuts to services in rural areas can be blamed on minority groups. The ridiculousness of a millionaire turned politician trying to blame ordinary people for economic and political problems is clear to everyone. As the low turnout in the presidential election shows Casey rhetoric failed to appeal to more than a small minority of people, It is unlikely that the European elections will be much different despite Casey being joined by a number of populist independents campaigning on similar anti immigrant platforms.

While Casey represents Gombeenism in the border midlands and west, UKIPs Irish spin off the Irexit party is standing Dolores Cahill in Ireland south. Campaigning for Ireland to leave the EU with the UK, they have not clarified what if any measures they would introduce to replace CAP and to compensate Irish fishermen for the loss of access to important EU markets.

The European elections are a crowded field but present a chance for rural Ireland to send strong representative to Brussels who will stand up for rural interests against various threats such as cuts to funds for rural areas, climate change, trade deals which will negatively impact rural communities and the broader economic model of neo liberalism which has created many of the issues facing rural communities.

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