Fianna Fail, President von Der Leyen and Recycling the Butterfly

Building a Conservative Europe - July 5, 2024

During the recent European Parliamentary elections all four of the Fianna Fail candidates who were subsequently elected made it clear they would oppose the reappointment of Ursula von de Leyen to the presidency of the European Commission. Which was odd.

For context a number of things need to be understood about the Irish electorate and their knowledge of the workings of EU institutions. Of those who voted for Fianna Fail candidates a vanishingly small number either knew or cared which grouping in the Parliament the party belonged to or that Ursula belonged to. Very few Irish voters could tell explain the role of the Parliament in choosing the President or the role that the President plays in distributing the various commissionerships. Grand Coalitions, the rise of the right, the struggle of social democracy, all of this is arcana to the Irish voter who simultaneously seems to think that the parliament is irrelevant but that these days power has decisively shifted from Dublin to Brussels. They have been taught this by generations of Irish politicians who, when they want to push through some unpopular policy will wring their hands and bleat that there is nothing they can do, Europe made them. Who and which bit of “Europe” is never very clear.

Why then they should have bothered to make Ursula a plank of their election run was hard to understand. Then they did an even odder thing. In normal circumstances a person runs on a platform which after they are elected is remembered selectively and in accordance with the needs of the day. Context is everything. However the four newly elected MEPs from Fianna Fail have doubled down and publicly restated their opposition to Von de Leyen. Before the election it was she was seen as the strong favourite to retain the presidency. After the election she remains in pole position. She will most likely be re-elected so why go out of your way to make an enemy of her?

This is a very pertinent question for Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin. The last Irish commissioner came from Fine Gael. In fact the last two as Phil Hogan left prematurely and was replaced by Mairead McGuinness. So this time its Fianna Fail’s turn to nominate and they have settled on Micheal McGrath the minister for Finance. He is also Martin’s constituency colleague and potential leadership rival but that’s another story. They very much hope that McGrath might be in line for for a high profile economic portfolio in the commission.

The worry for Martin and his coalition partner Taoiseach Simon Harris is that refusing to vote for her and indeed criticising her for being silent regarding the accusations of genocide in Gaza might not be the best way to persuade her and McGrath might end up as commissioner in charge of getting everyone’s coffee in the morning. Harris and Martin have said they will engage with the MEPs on the issue but of course respect their right to vote as they see fit. Harris however could not have made the plea to help out their party colleague any clearer when he stated “I think when it comes to MEPs voting for the commission presidents, they’re effectively voting for that commissioner’s team,”. Don’t think of it as voting for Ursula but rather voting for our old pal Michael.

All of this worry and work may be completely necessary of course. If and when Ursula von de Leyen is confirmed in her role by the Parliament she will appoint her commission on the basis of their particular talents and abilities and not from any rancour or wish to punish and the behaviour of the Fianna Fail MEPs is perfectly reasonable and not an idiotic act of national and political self harm.

Recycling the Butterfly effect.

You will remember how popular chaos theory was a few years and how often in a myriad of contexts folks would reference the Butterfly Effect. It was an idea borrowed from mathematical modelling in meteorology, a metaphor used to show how seemingly small events could have great consequences. A butterfly beating its wings in the high mountains of Peru could ultimately create a devastating Hurricane in the north Atlantic. In election years like this one in Ireland it is always fun to speculate what might turn out to be a chaotic butterfly for the government and this week we may have found one.

Canvassing is part and parcel of the Irish electoral process. The candidate or their supporters go door to door directly soliciting votes from the residents they find at home. The real value of the canvass is its use as source of data as the canvass provides a very large sample of voters and their concerns. As is best practice this year across the country there will have been meetings both during and after the elections of the canvassers to collate what they encountered on the door. In two such such meetings after the expected issues of housing and immigration the topic most annoying the people in the cheap seats was recycling.

On the first of February this year the government launched a Deposit Return Scheme on a variety of plastic bottles and cans. As schemes go it is very like dozens of others that have been operating for years in other countries. Each undamaged drinks container  returned to any participating retail outlet and you get your deposit back in full. A deposit of 15 cents will applies to containers from 150ml to 500ml, while a deposit of 25 cents applies to containers between 500ml and 3 litres. A six pack of half litre waters went up by a euro twenty five cents in a day and that was unpleasant particularly as many families realised for the first time quite how many bottles of soft drinks and mineral water they consumed in a week. The retailers made sure they were not taking the heat by double pricing everything, price without the “tax” and price with. The real bug bear however was the fact that most all Irish households these days have a selection of waster bins, organic, glass and recycling including aluminium and plastic. Why people asked were we paying for a recycling bin but now had to haul bags of bottles etc. back to the shops. It didn’t help that there have been more than a few practical problems with the functionality or lack of it with the return machines.

It maybe that in this case it was that rare thing a decent idea which was failed by poor communication. The aims behind the scheme as per the CEO of return “”The introduction of this scheme brings numerous exciting benefits to Ireland — it increases recycling rates, reduces litter, lowers emissions, prevents waste, and eases the strain on our natural resources. The separate collection of these plastic bottles and cans guarantees that high-quality recyclate material is returned and recycled and there is no cross contamination. The introduction of Deposit Return is a proven method of increasing recycling rates, with great success in a number of other European countries”

Whatever the wheres and whys it turned out that at least in some corners of the Island the folk were more agitated about the deposit scheme than the fact that the world’s most expensive children’s hospital is still not open and then this week brought some news that maybe the cherry on the annoyance sundae. It was announced in the last few days that waste collection companies are facing losing millions on recycling bin collections due to the lack of plastic bottles and drink cans being put out in the recycling bin. PET plastic, used in bottles, is worth around €500 a tonne to waste companies although it loses quality the more often it is recycled. Aluminium cans, which can be recycled indefinitely, are worth a lot more and a tonne of the metal worth between 800euro to 1400euro.

The loss of revenue is of course directly linked to the deposit return scheme and the waste collection companies have indicated that collection prices will have to rise in order to replace the loss. So to review, the scheme which was unpopular because of the hassle and that people already have recycling bins is now going increase the cost of those same recycling bins. Every election is different and it will be mainly about the usual suspects, housing, immigration and The Economy Stupid but we definitely have a candidate for this election’s potential butterfly.