On May 24, Irish and other EU citizens resident in Ireland will vote in the European Parliament elections. Voters will decide which national political parties will represent them in the European Parliament for the next five years.
Trinity students have always been politically engaged, as seen in the same-sex marriage referendum, repealing the Eighth Amendment, and the Take Back Trinity movement. How concerned are students about the EU’s influence over Irish affairs? Are Trinity students planning to vote in the upcoming elections?
In October last year, the European Parliament conducted a Eurobarometer survey on public attitudes towards the European Union. It found Ireland to be amongst the member states with the highest satisfaction rates with the EU, at 85%. It also saw that 92% of Irish respondents felt they have benefited from EU membership, compared to an EU average of 68%. However, despite the overwhelming Irish support for the EU, the survey found that 40% of Irish respondents were “not interested” in the European elections in May.
“Trinity itself has strong ties with Europe. College has been enrolled in the Erasmus exchange programme, a European Commission initiative, since 1987 and now has almost 100 partnerships with universities across Europe.”
This is the case as well in Trinity according to Connie Lillis, a fourth year European Studies student from Brussels, who is involved in the “This Time I’m Voting” campaign in Trinity. It is “a non-partisan information campaign initially launched by the European Parliament” to encourage people to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections. In her experience in launching this campaign in October last year, she found that on the whole “there’s quite a lot of awareness [in Trinity] about European affairs, whilst people may not have known about the European elections, they’ve definitely been very responsive to it”. Similarly, Ross Boyd, a first year Social Sciences and Cultural Innovation student who runs the campaign in Dublin City University (DCU), wrote that the response he got from people was “incredibly positive” on youth information website, SpunOut.ie.
Trinity itself has strong ties with Europe. College has been enrolled in the Erasmus exchange programme, a European Commission initiative, since 1987 and now has almost 100 partnerships with universities across Europe. Earlier this year, Trinity joined four other European universities in establishing the Charm European University (Charm-EU) scheme, which intends to focus education on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Irish support for the EU, Lillis reckons, is because “Ireland has really benefited from EU membership and it’s really helped with its economic development through structural funds and the Common Agricultural Policy. And Ireland can see that it’s beneficial to be part of something bigger.”
As well as this, Brexit has had a strong impact on Irish sentiment towards the EU. As Helen McEntee, Minister for European Affairs who is heavily active in Brexit affairs, said: “Europe first and foremost is a peace project. Brexit now threatens that kind of peace on our island. What we need to ensure is that Brexit does not undo the good work that we have done in this country (…) No matter what happens with Brexit, Ireland is 100% committed to the European Union.” Gerry Kiely, the Head of the European Commission Representation in Ireland, also explained Ireland’s support as a response to the EU’s concern for Ireland: ”[The Eurobarometer survey] captures Ireland’s strong support for the European Union. This is fully reciprocated, as is evident from the European Union’s unwavering support for Irish interests in the Brexit negotiations.”
Why then does the Irish population not know about the European elections when they are so supportive of the EU? Lillis believes it is due to “national governments [that] don’t really report on [the elections] beforehand to raise awareness and explain to people how they work”. She believes there’s also a “disengagement” problem between Dublin and other provinces in Ireland, which means information about the European elections isn’t being passed around the whole country.
Kate Ryan, a second year Business and Politics student, who is also active in the This Time I’m Voting campaign in Trinity, agrees with Lillis on the disengagement problem across Ireland. Coming from the West of Ireland, she “do[es]n’t necessarily feel European”. It is only through going to Trinity and attending events in Europe that she has been more exposed to European affairs. She said: “I think it depends a lot on where you’re from in Ireland. If you’re from Dublin, you have more of that exchange network with Europe.” She gives examples of her friends going to Sligo Institute of Technology, Dublin Institute of Technology, and Maynooth University who “wouldn’t consider themselves as European” and aren’t as aware of European affairs. This is why to her, “Trinity is definitely more European” than other universities across Ireland.
When asked whose responsibility it should be to educate the Irish population about the workings of the EU, Ryan took a defensive approach to the EU, saying “the European Union has loads of initiatives,” including parliament simulations, exchanges, debates, and lectures. She thinks, like Lillis, that it is more up to the national government to replicate the same initiatives in Ireland.
This year’s European elections have garnered more attention than in the past. This is largely because the two biggest parties in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), are likely to lose their majority due to a hike in Eurosceptic and far-right parties, such as the Five Star Movement. This means the process of implementing law will become much more difficult at a European level.
Speaking to Trinity News about the European elections, Dr Raj Chari, professor in Political Science at Trinity, said: “It is important for Irish students to vote in European Parliament elections because the European Union has a significant role in making policy in key areas, such as the single market, monetary, competition, and agriculture policies. All of these impact on the daily lives of all EU citizens.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Connie Lillis is a third year, rather than fourth year, student. The article was updated on May 17 at 6:30pm to amend this erro.