I got my first canvassing phone call for the European Elections today and spoke to the canvasser, who introduced herself as a friend of Raymond O'Malley and spoke of his fine personal qualities and suitability for the Parliament. She wasn't able to answer many of the policy questions I asked, so she promised that someone would get back to me.
Shortly afterwards I got a call from Pat Coogan of Libertas who undertook to answer my questions. I mentioned I was blogging about the EP elections, and requested an interview with his candidate. To my shock and surprise Raymond O'Malley gave me a ring shortly afterwards. Libertas appear to be well ahead of their rivals when it comes to organising and canvassing for the EP Election.
Raymond O'Malley is a 57 year old full time farmer and former Irish framer's Association official in Brussels - he was President of the Beef Advisory Group at the time of the BSE emergency. What follows has been composed from my notes of what was very much an off-the-cuff telephone interview as I hadn't had time to prepare any questions or an interview plan. So here goes...
I began by asking him what had attracted him to Libertas and why he had decided to run in the European Parliament Elections. He said that he had been introduced to Declan Ganley through a mutual friend and had found him clear and coherent at a time when he found it very difficult to get clear and easy to understand answers on Europe from anyone else.
Raymond felt that Ireland had been bullied during the Lisbon Referendum campaign by politicians who hadn't even bothered to read the Treaty themselves and who were claiming that Ireland would lose its place at the heart of Europe with consequent negative impacts on our prosperity and employment levels.
He himself had attempted to read the Treaty but lost track after a few pages, it was so complex and convoluted to follow. He argued that you wouldn't sign a contract you couldn't understand, so why vote for such a Treaty? He was offended by politicians who had failed to explain the merits of the Treaty and who resorted to resorted to unsubstantiated propaganda instead. He conceded that the NO campaign had also resorted to unsubstantiated claims about the Treaty but claimed that Libertas had sought to stick to the facts.
Having railed against the system of lobbyists in Brussels, I said I found it ironic that Libertas should now nominate a former lobbyist as their candidate. Raymond argued that it was essential for farmers to be represented in Brussels because of the increasing level of bureaucratic red tape being drafted by Eurocrats "who wouldn't know one end of a cow from another".
As an example of their idiotic regulations he cited a requirement that cattle trucks could only be loaded half full - which greatly increased the risk of injury to the animals as a truck drove around a corner. "Farmers were being demoralised by all the red tape, and as a consequence agricultural production was declining, increasing our dependence on imports".
From his own experience of Lobbying in Brussels he stated that he had never once lobbied an MEP. "They were seen as totally irrelevant to what was going on, and that if you wanted to influence policy you had to talk to the Commission. The European Parliament doesn't even have the power to initiate legislation, so why talk to them?"
I noted that the Lisbon Treaty increased the competency and powers of the Parliament in this regard, so why was he opposed to Lisbon? "Lisbon doesn't go far enough. There should be direct elections for Commissioners and for the President of the European Commission to increase transparency and accountability. At the moment if you lobby Irish Civil Servants you know that their Minister is ultimately accountable to the electorate whereas the Commissioners weren't elected by anyone".
I noted that the Commission had to be approved by the EP and that the EP could also dismiss the Commission and recalled that it had refused to approve an Italian nominee to the Commission. Raymond felt that the interest in the EP elections was so low throughout Europe because people didn't know what the EP did and didn't know what difference their vote would make. There would be a lot more participation and buy-in by the public if Commissioners were directly elected.
I pointed out that the current indirect system was in line with European traditions of indirect democracy and that smaller and less populous members such as Ireland would be disadvantaged by a switch to direct democracy. Candidates for the Presidency might not even visit Ireland as it represented less than 1% of the European Electorate. He argued that he wouldn't ignore a part of his constituency just because it was small, so why would candidates for a directly elected Presidency?
I suggested that many states in the USA (and constituencies in the UK) are all but ignored during campaigns unless they were "Swing States" or "Marginal Constituencies" and that direct elections would focus all attention on only a few major populous states. Raymond felt that it was essential to reform the EU to make it more accountable and that Ireland, too, would benefit from a more dynamic EU with a greater level of public participation and buy-in.
I noted that Libertas was campaigning on the basis of cutting the EU budget by 10 Billion which was bound to effect Ireland adversely, as Ireland is still a net beneficiary from EU funds, chiefly through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which was by far the largest Budget item within the EU and which greatly benefited his fellow farmers.
Raymond argued that many of the savings could be achieved by cutting out waste and inefficiency in areas such as travel, the bi-location of the EP (cost 500M), and PR which he claimed had a current budget of 2.4 billion. (I had to declare an interest that the Th!nkaboutit blogging campaign probably benefited from that fund - although I doubted that a few laptops and iPhones would make serious inroads into such a budget!).
Raymond also noted that the EU auditors had expressed serious reservations about the spending of the 4.9 Billion Cohesion fund and there needed to be much greater transparency and accountability in the way EU funds are spent. Nevertheless, Libertas has not itemised precisely where those 10 Billion savings would be made.
Changing tack, I suggested that many of Libertas' new allies throughout Europe would be surprised by the strongly pro-EU, even Federalist, approach he was taking to the EU, given that many of the parties and individuals Libertas was aligning itself with came from extremely right wing or nationalist backgrounds with a history of Eurosceptism, not to say outright opposition to the EU.
Raymond said he had missed their recent Party Conference in Rome (which had been addressed by Lech Walesa) but that he was assured that that was not the case. There were people of all stripes joining Libertas, and that you get people coming from the fringes in any political party.
I asked Raymond about suggestions that Declan Ganley's current business interests were virtually all in the USA and that he was closely associated with the defence industry there and with neo-conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation which might not wish to see a strong EU competing effectively with the USA.
Raymond said he had spoken to Declan about this, and that it was ridiculous to read such political implications into what were normal business relationships. Most of the Rivada Networks contracts were with 17 separate US states to provide communications technology for disaster situations to their National guards. It was natural, in that context, to have retired Generals and Admirals on its board.
Finally I asked Raymond what difference he could make in the European Parliament, given that he had previously criticised it for its ineffectiveness. He said that Libertas was the first truly pan-European party to be set up as part of the EU and as such they had an exciting opportunity to reform the EU, to make it more accountable, and to increase the degree of identification and buy in that ordinary Europeans had with its institutions and policies. He stood for a reformed, more efficient and effective EU, and would have no truck with anybody who sought to make the EU less open, transparent, or accountable
Unfortunately, at that point I had to cut the interview short as I had a prior engagement. It would have been interesting to pursue some of the lines of enquiry above in more detail. If there is much interest in this interview here, I will try and find an opportunity to do so.
Current opinion polls put Libertas at 2% nationally, and thus with very little chance of being elected, although I would expect this figure to rise at the campaign progresses. A candidate has to receive almost 25% of the vote in order to be elected in the 3 seat constituency single transferable vote proportional representation system used in Ireland. Raymond acknowledges they have a lot of work to do, but that an internal poll puts them at much higher than that.
Undoubtedly the third and last seat in Ireland East is up for grabs between the smaller Irish political parties and more prominent independent candidates. Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael will almost certainly win the first two. The third seat is probably a close call between fine Gael and Labour with transfers of lower preference votes from Sinn Fein, the Greens and smaller political parties like Libertas crucial to the outcome.
Raymond's farming and Brussels background will be a huge asset to him amongst the large farming and rural vote in the constituency, but it remains to be seen whether the Libertas brand in Ireland can overcome its association with Eurosceptic forces such as Vaclav Klaus in Europe - and with the sense that at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil, Ireland needs to be on good terms with its European Partners now more than ever.
Campaigning on the basis of increased accountability and democracy in the EU is always a good populist line to take, but it remains to be seen if Irish voters will buy into a reduced EU and CAP budget and a platform of more direct democracy when that would disadvantage smaller, less populous member states.
One thing can be said, however. Libertas have a simple message to sell and is currently making a much better fist of selling it than all the other traditional parties combined.