Thursday, 29 January 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
The purpose of this short Bill is to implement the recommendations of the constituency commission report of 2003 on changes to the European Parliament constituencies and to give effect to the European Council decision of 25 June and 23 September 2002 concerning the election of Members of the European Parliament.
The Bill has six sections. Section 1 defines the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to which I shall refer as the 1997 Act. Sections 2, 3 and 5 amend the 1997 Act to implement certain provisions of the European Council decision of 25 June and 23 September 2002.
The 2002 Council decision updated a 1976 Act of the European Community concerning the election of the representatives of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage. Most of the changes made in the Council decision are textual and are already provided for in Irish legislation. The four changes requiring transposition into Irish law are: the specification of new categories of office holders who are not eligible for election to the European Parliament, namely, a member of the board of directors of the European Central Bank, the Ombudsman of the European Communities, a member of the Court of First Instance or an official of the European Central Bank; the ending of a dual mandate for a person who is a Member of either House of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament, although the Council decision, provides for a derogation for a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas elected to the European Parliament in June 2004 until the next general election to the Houses of the Oireachtas, when he or she will no longer be permitted to hold the two offices; a requirement that the results of the European elections may not be announced officially until the close of polling in the member state whose electors are the last to vote; and any reference in the 1997 Act and in other domestic legislation to a representative in the European Parliament should be construed as a reference to a Member of the European Parliament.
I would like to set out briefly the background to the European Council decision of June and September 2002. The European treaty provided for a uniform electoral procedure to the European Parliament from the first direct elections in 1979. While the Parliament actively sought the introduction of such a procedure, unanimity was never forthcoming at Council level, mainly because of one member state's desire to maintain its first past the post electoral system.
Two developments in 1998 gave renewed impetus to harmonising the electoral procedure for European elections. First, the Amsterdam treaty relaxed the strict uniformity requirement. Article 138(3) of that treaty reads as follows: “The European Parliament shall draw up a proposal for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member states or in accordance with principles common to all member states”.
Second, UK legislation was amended to provide for a non-preferential proportional representation list system for European elections. Some form of list system of proportional representation was used throughout the European Union in the 1999 European elections, except for Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Amsterdam treaty also authorised the European Parliament to draw up a proposal for a common procedure or common principles for European elections to supersede the 1976 Council Act on direct elections.
In anticipation of the coming into force of the Amsterdam treaty, the European Parliament in July 1998 passed a resolution incorporating a draft Act to implement the revised Article 138(3). The draft Act was discussed from 1998 to 2002 in the general affairs group of the Council of Ministers.
There were some contentious points in the draft Act such as a proposal that a list system of proportional representation must be used. There was no problem with specifying PR in the Act as it is a principle common to all member states. However, there was a difficulty with the article specifying that a list system of PR be used. The Irish PR single transferable vote system is not a list system within the normal continental meaning of the expression so we secured a change to this article to accommodate our electoral system. This text provides for retention of our present electoral system, while allowing for an alternative, if such is decided in the future.
It was also proposed that the office of MEP shall be incompatible with the office of member of a national parliament. This proposal represented a complete change in policy as a dual mandate had previously been specifically provided for. In this regard, the explanatory statement which accompanied the European Parliament's report of 2 June 1998 stated:
Article 5 of the Council Act of 1976 permitted members of the European Parliament who are members of a national parliament to exercise a dual mandate. While 13 of the 15 Irish MEPs elected in 1979 exercised a dual mandate, only four of the 15 MEPs elected in 1994 had dual membership. Following the 1997 general election, no Irish MEP had a dual mandate. While two dual mandated MEPs were elected in Ireland in 1999, no Irish MEP currently holds a dual mandate.
In recent years, there has been a tendency for Members of the Irish Parliament elected to the European Parliament to opt for one or other mandate at the next subsequent general election. There has also been a progressive reduction in the number of national representatives exercising the dual mandate. In practice, therefore, the exercise of the dual mandate in Ireland has become limited in time and in number.
The previous Government negotiated a limited derogation to the elimination of the dual mandate. The Government has now decided that the limited derogation will apply on a once-off basis at the June 2004 elections. The ban on the dual mandate will fully apply from the next general election.
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