WHEN European Parliament committee positions were being doled out after the 2014 election, Ireland South Fine Gael MEP, Seán Kelly, didn’t get everything he wanted.
Positions are allotted based on both party and country, so larger countries, like France and Germany, end up with many more MEPs on key committees, regardless of those MEPs’ interests in a given topic.
Perturbed by this, and concerned that Ireland’s voice wouldn’t be heard, Mr Kelly approached the key decision-makers and made his case clearly, firmly, and, in his own words, with “a bit of bad language.” Suddenly, some seats emptied up and he’s now a member of the committee on industry, research and energy and on the delegation for relations with Iran, and a substitute member on the parliament’s committees on international trade, fisheries, and pesticides, and the delegations to the United States and Southeast Asia.
“Sometimes, you have to fight. When you come from a small country, there is always the attitude that ‘oh, they’re okay, we don’t have to worry too much about them.’ You can get trampled very easily.
“You can’t be fighting all the time — you have to pick your battles — but, after a while, if they get to know that you’re a serious player, they are more inclined to listen to you,” he said.
Some of that attitude comes from his days as president of the GAA from 2003 to 2006, when he pushed through major projects and reforms, like the infamous decision to allow rugby and football into Croke Park. He said that sports administration taught him that when you know a decision is right, you have to push it forward, regardless of what people think, and you have to call people out if they are trying to fool you.
Now, nine years into his political career, Mr Kelly has become a key player on issues like data protection, climate change, recycling, and international trade. That didn’t come easily to someone whose background was in sports.
“Not being involved in politics is an advantage, in one sense, but it’s a huge disadvantage, in another, in that you don’t have that background of political knowledge. I had to work hard at it. I used to go to the debates more than anyone else, just to listen, and pick out the important points. I concentrated on learning them,” he said.
On committees, he had to become an expert in areas of which he previously had little experience, such as becoming the parliament’s rapporteur on data protection.
“When you are given a file — I was given charge of data protection, and that’s a huge file — you have no choice but to become a master of it, because you’re in with people who can argue it down to the finest detail. You might spend half an hour arguing over the right word,” he said.
His work on that issue contributed to the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is set to take effect in the coming weeks. In light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and how Facebook failed to protect user data, data protection has become a major public concern. While the GDPR, which aims to put users in control of their own data and will levy massive fines on companies that breach the rules, has come under some criticism for not being strong enough, Mr Kelly believes it is the right approach.
“There is a balance between having too many restrictions, which can lead to curbing development, and having too few restrictions, which can lead to abuse. Finding that balance is the trick.
“The GDPR applies right across Europe. It applies to all businesses and bodies, and it provides certain rights for what we call a ‘data subject’. But there is a provision to look at anything new that emerges and make certain adjustments. I think you’ll find that, very quickly, if there are any breaches, that there are good processes, through the data protection board and even the courts, if necessary, to address any deficiencies. The mechanism is there to do it. That will ensure that the likes of Facebook have the proper measures in place.
“Up until now, it’s been slack enough. There was too much trust. Now, the rules will be tightening rather than loosening, as we go forward,” he said.
Climate change and recycling have been at the forefront of Mr Kelly’s work. He was recently appointed to head up the European Parliament’s work on addressing plastic pollution of the seas and was on the parliament’s negotiation committee for the landmark Paris climate change agreement. Although its president, Donald Trump, pulled the US out of the agreement, Mr Kelly said that the rest of the world is pressing ahead.
When Mr Trump was running for president and talking about pulling out of the agreement, Mr Kelly had the opportunity to quiz then-US secretary of state, John Kerry, on the matter.
“He gave me an answer, which turned out to be true. He said it may happen, but it won’t make a whole pile of difference, because an awful lot of the states and, especially, mayors, have taken measures to deal with climate change.
“California was one he mentioned in particular. He said that’s not going to change. A president comes in for a few years, but the movement to address climate change is essentially irrevocable. That’s how it has panned out.
“Subsequently to that, we had the Chinese delegation, and I asked them that question. What they answered me, and that’s proved to be true, too, is ‘No. If America pulls out, which we hope they won’t, we will take the opportunity to give global leadership on it’.
“While people can criticise them, they are doing something. They are committed to it. That momentum is growing,” he said.
He said that the United States will regret Mr Trump’s short-term isolationist policies, because the world is moving on without them.
“That is something that is going to be detrimental to them in the long-term.
“They’ll find it very hard to get that back, because, as the Chinese said to me, they are going to fill that vacuum,” he said.
On plastics, Mr Kelly said that he expects huge changes to be made in the coming years. As the parliament’s rapporteur on marine pollution, he and his team will be focused on this issue in the coming months, and he believes that a lot can be achieved.
“I think there will be rapid and very conclusive proposals on dealing with the whole plastic issue. There will be very firm regulations, but there will also be a huge ramp-up in research to get alternatives, especially to get ones that can be part of the circular economy.
“Because it was done at sea, an awful lot of damage was done before we became aware of it, whereas, if you saw a dump in the country side and you passed it every day, you would be conscious of it.
“It’s nice to be involved in something you believe in, where you can make a huge difference. If, say in 10 years’ time, we could say we have more or less solved the plastic problem in the world, wouldn’t it be great to say ‘I was part of that’?”
MEP Seán Kelly has had to fight for his place at the table in European politics. He tells David Linnane about how he got where he is now and what the future holds in terms of the environment, agriculture, and Donald Trump