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Nina Carberry’s vanishing act is a sign of casual disregard for European Parliament

The European Parliament is an increasingly powerful institution from which a huge share of our laws and regulations derive – so why do some politicians seem to regard it as expensive training wheels?

Voters who missed Nina Carberry on her super-stealth canvass at least knew what she looked like thanks to posters and videos that evoked previous outings as a champion jockey, celebrity dancer and coach. Photograph: Conor McKeown/PA Wire

Nina Carberry pulled off one of the great vanishing acts of the European Parliament campaign though voters who missed her on her super-stealth canvass at least knew what she looked like thanks to posters and videos that evoked previous outings as a champion jockey, celebrity dancer and coach. Unlike Galato Alexandraki, a 76-year-old Greek butcher from Alexandroupoli. Alexandraki managed to win a seat for the Greek Solution party without even submitting a photograph of herself, running a campaign or giving an interview. Afterwards she said she was startled by the outcome and didn’t know how she won. She declined to say whether she would take up the seat. The new Greek MEP line-up still has no picture of her.

It sounds like a jape reminiscent of sandwich-board man, Bernie Murphy’s 1985 election to Cork City Council – a feat variously attributed to a cry of pain from a banjaxed country, a groan of apathy or as widely rumoured, an elaborate scheme to clean out the bookies. But what seemed hilarious to some looked like an abuse of democracy to others at a time when unemployment and emigration were at a heartbreaking high. Not a great joke in the circumstances.

Neither is the election of Alexandraki. An offshoot of the disbanded neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn (ruled a criminal organisation), the ultraconservative, pro-Russia Greek Solution party operates under the Trump-esque slogan, Make Europe Christian Again. Presumably, Alexandraki was aware of the party’s ethos and of her place at the top of the list before she signed the nomination papers. Presumably, too, she was told that all this would involve an election in which she would demonstrate her commitment and respect for the voters by participating in public debate, demonstrating her grasp of EU policy as well as her ambition for the people she aspired to represent. Or maybe not.

As things stand the odds of the camera-shy butcher schlepping to Brussels are low to zero. Whether it was part of a grand scheme to begin with will soon become evident. Either way, remarkably, the system facilitates such manoeuvres.


Peadar Tóibín was open about the fact that if he had won election to Brussels, he would abandon it in a few months to contest the general election. The system facilitates this too. If elected to the Dáil, he would simply have passed the MEP job along to his sister, a county councillor. Tóibín had an answer for anyone who viewed this as rather cynical. There was a precedent for it, he told the Mirror, noting that Pat “The Cope” Gallagher had done it for Fianna Fáil, Simon Coveney for Fine Gael and Matt Carthy for Sinn Féin. All true. The difference is that all three served considerable time in the parliament: 14 years in total for Gallagher, six for Carthy and an industrious three for Coveney. All three ceded the seat to party members.

Tóibín’s plan by contrast was to give it a few months then hand the Brussels job to his sister, doubling the number of elected party members at a stroke. There was nothing cynical about it, he said, since voters had been told upfront about the plan. Councillor Emer Tóibín could have run for the Brussels seat in her own right of course. It would have upheld at least the spirit of the ballot. Either way, the Tóibíns would have done nothing wrong.

Last February, German MEP Helmut Geuking from the small Family Party in the EPP group stood down and handed his seat to his son who happened to be first on the party’s replacement list. Now Helmut is back in the game. The Geukings did nothing wrong either.

Bulgaria held early parliamentary elections on the same day as the European Parliament election with many party heavyweights appearing on both lists. Several of those elected to the parliament announced during the week that they would stick with domestic politics.

The overarching problem is the casual treatment of the European Parliament and what it represents. In the words of Prof Gary Murphy, the big Irish parties think about European elections as sending a very small pool to a very big parliament where the new members can try to concentrate on an area of particular interest to them and no harm can be done. And if they don’t get elected there might be another potential run out for a Dáil seat.

When many politicians regard the European Parliament as an inferior forum only fit for the domestically inexperienced, or as (very expensive) training wheels for aspiring politicians, they can hardly expect voters to take an interest in an increasingly powerful institution from which a huge share of our laws and regulations derive.

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Political experience is not a mandatory qualification for any candidate though – as some incoming MEPs are discovering this week – it can be a big help. In the vastness of the European Parliament, politics is less about macho fighting and banging on tables – a big trope of the election campaign – than influencing, persuasion and compromise. That takes confidence, articulacy and an ability to network and negotiate. It’s why we need to see candidates stepping up to debate and speak in public forums.

Voters are entitled to know what MEPs do with their time and generous resources. MEPs have a responsibility not to vanish for five years and to communicate meaningfully with their constituents. And their leaders have a duty to take the parliament as seriously as domestic politics and not to game the system. The people are on the side of the EU for now but there are no lifetime guarantees.