Europe without its people means nothing to me

27 June 2016

James Connolly said “Ireland without its people means nothing to me”. To paraphrase Connolly – Europe without its people means nothing to me. So can we now speak of European People? We are Irish & European, French & European, Polish & European.

We see the shock and anger among people and a new fear of a further period of uncertainty as to what the profound historic rejection means. It is a wake-up call to European leadership

The EU has been an essential force not just in building peace but in spreading democracy. Similarly, it has been an essential force not just in promoting prosperity but equality and human rights. It was the EU which put equal pay and other rights for women firmly on the agenda and prioritised the rights of people with disabilities. That approach to human rights, including women’s rights and the rights of particular groups such as people with disabilities or minorities, brought about many changes in Ireland in the past number of decades.

When the standing of the EU was at its highest, countries were queuing up to join. I think in particular of the situation after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. Now, sadly, our nearest neighbor and biggest trading partner is the first member to leave the Union.

The very survival of the EU is now in peril – some reactions are already baffling. Angela Merkel has solemnly called for calm. François Hollande has declared that there needs to be a “refoundation” of the EU. Donald Tusk, European council president, quotes Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, believes “the chain reaction being celebrated everywhere now by Eurosceptics won’t happen”.

What we have seen, and what faces the Taoiseach and his fellow members of the European People’s Party, is a slow but steady drift of that broad European ideal to the right in several European countries in very difficult economic circumstances, the most scandalous and difficult of which is the widespread unemployment of young people. Many of those countries are prosperous enough on paper and some, like ours, are either in recovery or still in the depths of economic crashes and difficulties. It is understandable that people in many European countries feel that things they or their parents took for granted – constant and continuous incremental improvements in their lifestyle – are put under threat by changes that appear to come from a very remote location, Brussels, and from a leadership that is quite remote from most people, including those in their home countries. It is difficult to convey to anyone who goes to Europe as a Commissioner, as many from here have, that it does not reach citizens and there is a need for a profound change of style in respect of the European leadership. We have had so many and such frequent referendums in this country on major European changes that we are politically used to having to make the case, explain the advantages and likely disadvantages and help people weigh in the balance how they wish to cast their vote. I hope a majority of citizens in the UK, including people of Irish extraction who may be voting this week, will vote to stay. For many, given the difficulties they have experienced, it is a difficult choice and they feel threatened.

What is the Irish Government’s plan B if the vote does not go as the majority of parties here have urged? It will certainly cause a degree of shock and give rise to change. While I know the Government has been active and I asked the Taoiseach some time ago to have debates here on Brexit, I wonder whether there is a plan B.

I mention the murder of Jo Cox because there has been a development in politics of a language of hate as opposed to a language of argument. Everyone understands that politics involves argument, discussion, making choices and reaching decisions in everybody’s best interests. On the extreme right, however, no more than on the extreme left, there is a language of hate which is corroding most of our democracies and inhibiting good discussion that would help us reach better decisions. I have spoken about the spaces on social media which have sought, for instance, to demonise women, in particular, from a wide range of parties who are involved in politics. I know from extensive studies carried out by The Guardian under the campaign entitled The Web We Want that approximately 80% of hate posts are directed against female parliamentarians and approximately 20% against male parliamentarians.

The fading connection between citizens and the European institutions across the EU will not be restored by diplomatic choreography. It won’t be enough to restore what has been shattered.

The European Council and Commission have to convincingly answer the charge levelled by the Eurosceptic camp that democracy is being undermined by the EU system. Their argument is based on the idea that only by reversion to the Nation State we can restore to people the sense they can kick out their rulers at elections, and to choose new ones. It is a powerful argument and needs to be met by convincing reform at European Council and Commission level.

The word “reformed” is important in this context. As a social democrat, as someone who believes that the single best protection against poverty is secure and fairly paid work, I was appalled by the EU’s initial response to the financial crisis. It was too slow, dictated from the centre, and ideologically blinkered in approach. As a Minister from 2011, I repeatedly argued, together with my colleagues in the Labour Party, that the EU needed to shift from austerity towards a policy based on investment, growth and job creation, with full employment the central target. I pressed the case for that shift at European level at every opportunity, something I continued to do when I became Tánaiste and Labour Party leader

Young people, as the referendum in the UK demonstrates do grasp the advantages of an open diverse Europe. That link is now in grave danger, and if it is further weakened Europe will unravel. This is the one priority that should obsess those who sit in Brussels.  The European Council and Commission need to restore among European citizens that a collective endeavour of solidarity and values can deliver what they need and want. It is not enough to blame the voters for the disconnect between citizens and the EU.

The task we face is to restore the great solidarity that underpinned the European ideal because that solidarity will be essential if we are to tackle today’s global challenges. Going it alone is not really an option when we talk about climate change, terrorism and the myriad other challenges that face different societies and countries today. We are stronger working together.

In recent years, leading up to and after the financial crisis, policy shifted to the right, the consensus weakened, progress stalled and we have not faced today’s great challenges with the vigour or sense of fairness that Europe brought to tackling them in the past. The only way to do that is to work together to restore the social Europe to the benefit of all our people.

If trust and hope are not restored in the notion that the EU can be democratic in its functioning and deliver concrete outcomes to citizens, the Pied Pipers of populism will continue to attract confused electorates. More illiberalism and toxic divisions will seep into the continent. This vote is a wake-up call: Europe needs saving.

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