Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The lessons we can learn by exploring Ireland's political traditions.

I often come across comments from other people on how can Greece, or any other country in Europe can reform and change its political system, or its political elites. It is something that it seems unthinkable, though it is desired by many.

So let us explore the political institutions and traditions of one European country, in an effort to study how political traditions are formed and how difficult is to break away from them. I am going to use the case of Ireland and its political traditions, not because I wish to expose any failures or shortcomings in it, but explain how hard it is to reform a political system that often took centuries to form.

The Irish state is relatively new. It broke away from the British Empire to form an independent state, yet it based its political traditions on the British political system. Until recently Ireland was a peripheral, conservative, landowning but peasant rural culture, with an underdeveloped industrial class.

Its post colonial nationalist Catholic Irish identity is central, with a powerful authoritarian and dominant Catholic Church. For ideological, pragmatic and cultural reasons, Britain gave areas of decision making in Ireland to societal actors, especially the Catholic Church. Until the booming years of the '90s and '00s, Ireland's culture was based on loyalty to peasant kinship ties, rather on class solidarity. It was very authoritarian, conformist and anti-intellectual.

The main driving force of Irish politics was a pervasive populism in which the local pubs and political leaders were unusually vulnerable to each other's influences. The power overall is until today very centralized, with an underdeveloped working class and a nationalist stress on the unity of conformity.

One of the main political parties in Ireland, the Fianna Fail, grew from this culture and used it for its own political ends. The Irish political party system started with a single nationalist party within the British political system, in the 19th century.

Sinn Fein represented the widespread demand for Irish political independence and during the war for independence it was strong. A civil war was fought over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British Government in 1921. The Treaty proposed the ending of British rule in the 26 counties, but maintaining it in the 6 counties of Ulster.

Due to the disagreement over the Treaty, Sinn Fein split. The more moderate pro-treaty nationalist leaders formed the Cumann na nGaedheal party in 1923 and ran the country until 1933, when it renamed itself to Fine Gael.

Fianna Fail, the anti-treaty nationalist party, was formed out of the group defeated in the civil war, but then accepted constitutional politics. A smaller more militant group, kept the name Sinn Fein and did not recognize the constitutionality of the 26 county Irish state, even to this day.

At the early stages of the Irish state, the Catholic Church ran many of the functions that a state normally would, like health and education. This led to subsidiarity, corporatism and a consensus society with centralized institutions, which lacked transparency and accountability.

The political system in Ireland provides since then many "veto points" where actors or interest groups have political power to veto decisions. So the state became captured of vested interests of groups, with too much veto power to stop reforms in their tracks.

This combination of highly centralized and unaccountable concentration of power, combined with strong vested interests can lead to a political culture of elite "group think." These elites reinforce what is already acceptable, while dissenting voices are marginalized and ridiculed.

The defining question for Irish parties is historically the national one, rather than class.  Irish politics derive from a culture of solidarity, cohesion and homogeneity. This culture was consciously sustained by Fianna Fail, which saw itself representing the interests of the Irish people as whole and did not want to see sections of the nation against others.

That explains the lack of political polarization in Ireland, of extreme political parties, ideologies and anything that would divide the nation in right or left wing supporters. And also it explains why the Irish people rarely protest, march or riot against their political system.

So Ireland has a passive citizenry with relative low voter turnout of 65% and low levels of political party membership. The dominance by multinational capital over the weakened trade union movement, whose base of support was more and more restricted to public sector workers, increased the power of the international capitalist class.

During 1987 and the years that followed the Fianna Fail government introduced social partnership, to bring together the employers' unions, trade unions and farmer's organizations. But soon it was clear that this kind of social partnership was giving businesses virtually anything they asked for: low corporation taxes, low capital taxes, low social insurance contributions and a virtually unregulated labor market. (David Begg, Secretary General of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, 2005)

It was soon obvious that social partnerships were not about democracy. The institutional arrangements to deepen deliberative democracy, did not work for democracy. The voice and ability of the civil society to criticize policy and lobby for social change were muted.

The community and voluntary sector became a tool of welfare provision, rather than developmental active citizenship. All the above together with the neo-liberal paradigm, has allowed elites to inflict severe damage on Irish society, with very few critical voices being raised.

Any ideology can appear to be absent in the Irish state, but Irish politics is not non-ideological. Conservative economic and social stances tend to predominate among Irish policy makers. The Irish state saw itself earlier as a subservient to the power of the Catholic Church, but now they appear to be doing so to the power of the global capital, which runs most of the economy.

The discourse in Irish politics rarely acknowledges its ideological neo-liberal content. This ideology has been hidden in the discourse about "partnership", combating "poverty" and fostering "equality." The absence of clear left-right political divide and the consensus mentality suggests a pragmatic, flexible state and bureaucracy, marked by the absence of critical debate about alternatives and dominated by a narrow range of voices.

The role of the country's media here is very important and decisive. The country's weak intellectual political tradition, the media ownership and the fact that writers, academics and critics depend on state funding, also contribute to that phenomenon. Fianna Fail was a dynamic populist party, that marred traditional "clientelistic" Irish political techniques with modern forms of manipulation of political opinion.

Its founder Eamon de Valera used the family owned Irish Press newspaper groups, to mould public opinion and discourse. In that way a dominant technocratic ideology, that is rarely challenged by other ideological perspectives was established.

The Irish civil service also plays a role in the formation of the country's political traditions, as it acts as the unelected state. In its creation, the Irish state inherited the British Westminster model of politics and the British Whitehall model of civil service and public administration. In fact the Irish civil service is still influenced by its colonial traditions.

It inherited a structure based on strict hierarchies of power and on the dominance of the Department of Finance. The civil service in Ireland has power. Only during the past two decades up to the financial crisis, power was shifted more to the political system, with ministers overriding the advice of civil servants on matter like the country's budget.

Until then, a lack of control, accountability and responsibility on the part of the Irish political class was widespread. The elected politicians allocated to the state bureaucracy and the civil service, the role of the principal initiator and designer of policy, rather the executor. The Whitehall culture let to conservative bias to policy and administration and a culture of secrecy.

Professional civil servants have much power in administration and in policy development, that it leads to incrementalism and the civil servants are using this power subtly, keeping the status quo and avoiding radical change. They are also in contact with interest groups without control, accountability and responsibility on the Irish political class.

Though a lot of important reforms took place in Ireland the past few decades, like the establishment of the Ombudsman's Office and the Data Protection Act, the country still maintains its neo-liberal political ideology that promotes the interests of the global capitalist elites.

The way that the Irish government has dealt with the current economic crisis, testifies this fact and it comes with the cooperation and involvement of the other European governing elites. And it achieved everything it wanted with very little reaction from the Irish voters.

From the Irish case we can understand how difficult is to reform a political system and I am sure that many of us, will find a lot of similarities between Ireland and our own countries. Especially when we are examining the case of countries like Greece, that has been through very similar transformations and political traditions over their very short modern history.

When your country's elites form a "national" consensus that all of us must accept in order to feel that we belong in a collective "national" culture and mentality, is it possible to break free and form our own? How easy is to criticize the current establishment and what actions can we take to push for reforms, when we are against a very old, established and well functioning political system that is influenced or controlled by global elites?

The only way is to study our nation's history with an open mind and explore the role of all actors that are, or have been involved in the past, inevitably forming our national and political conscience of today. But without a proper educational system that will allow and encourage this, or a platform that citizens can come together and discuss politics openly, this seems impossible.

If we do not change the way we think of or get involved in politics, our communities won't change. If our communities can't change, then our countries won't change either and so is Europe, or the way the whole world is shaped and develops. And that makes us accomplices of the current political reality.

The above article was written based on notes of the various publications by Dr. Mary Murphy and Prof. Peadar Kirby, that I read while studying politics as part of my journalism studies.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The meaning of the German Elections for Europe.

On the 22nd of September Europe's leading economy, will go to the polls to decide the future members of the 18th Bundestag, the main federal legislative house of Germany and its new government. The result of these elections will have an impact not just within Germany's borders, but on the whole European continent.

Since Germany's current government and its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel are playing a major role in shaping Europe's and the euro-zone's financial policies, these elections inevitably matter for all Europe. As expected, there is going to be great media attention on the German electoral outcome, especially from countries like Greece, who are directly affected from the German inspired European financial policies.

The two main competitors of these elections are Angela Merkel with her CDU/CSU (The Christian Democratic Union of Germany) party and Mr. Peer Steinbrueck with the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Mrs Merkel seems to maintain the lead and her popularity comes from Germany's current economic performance, but also the fact that the country and Mrs. Merkel seem to have such strong influence on Europe.

Yet Mrs. Merkel is only taking the credit for Germany's success, in reality it was the SPD and their "Agenda for 2010" that actually made Germany the European powerhouse that it is today. It was the former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that has passed the reforming agenda, that drastically reduced Germany's state welfare system. That coming from Social Democrat, sealed the party's fate during the next elections and gave the opportunity for CDU to come into power.

So Steinbrueck and his party have actually something to show for and swing some votes in their favor. For Greece and many other countries under the Mrs. Merkel backed austerity program, Mr Steinbrueck looks like a hopeful candidate. In a recent and only televised debate of the campaign for Sept. 22 federal elections, the two candidates sparred over the debt crisis.

Steinbrueck said that Merkel was applying austerity in “deadly doses” to southern Europe and that far more emphasis must be placed on bolstering economic growth and stemming record unemployment. Steinbrueck dismissed Merkel's European policy as a "failure" because of continued recession and sky-high unemployment in the southern euro countries that have had to swallow deep spending cuts in exchange for bailouts. (

But will Mr. Steinbrueck bring real change in Germany's policies towards Greece and the euro-zone crisis, or will he remain silent after his potential electoral victory, just like Mr. Hollande? The Germans seem to like Angela Merkel just as she is and the opinion polls clearly show that.

If we think about it, these elections have a very peculiar character like everything in the EU at the moment. We are having some very European elections, because of their impact and importance for the euro-zone and Europe, but nevertheless the outcome will be decided solely on a national front and only by the German people.

Whoever wins these elections will be holding the reigns of the future financial policies and direction of the euro-zone, but the rest of us can only watch while the Germans decide. This is a new reality that Europe has found itself in, that all the parameters like the launching of the euro, the European economic integration and the current crisis, have led to it.

The German people have been given a huge say and influence over the rest of Europe, either they like it or not and independently from whether that was the primary purpose of the European integration process. Understandably since Germany is the most populous country and leading economy of Europe, it is inevitable to have a strong German influence in EU.

The problem is, will the German people and their leaders take this responsibility as a chance to rule and subdue the smaller nations of Europe under their influence, or will they start thinking more European? If they will eventually come out of their shell and take the reigns of the EU, they must start taking into consideration the various national sensitivities, economic traditions and practices, or the interests of each country in order to rule Europe fairly.

If they fail to do so, it is almost certain that they will face strong resistance from other EU member states that will oppose their leadership. And that will lead to more frictions withing the block, with the potential break-up of the European project. That is in nobody's interest, especially for Germany that benefits so much from the EU and the euro.

Right now the German people vote to elect the Bundestag by taking into consideration their national interests, the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of  their outgoing government and the campaign of the contesting parties that focus on German issues and sensitivities. The German leaders in return, decide the future policies of the country according the wishes of their voters and of course the German mentality.

But when these same policies affect the rest of Europe too, then a problem arises. Germany can not be seen imposing its policies on other nations, that have not taken part in the election of the German government without a backlash, as it happened with Greece. And very rightly so, as we are dealing with the issue of losing the national sovereignty to another country and that is not how Europe should function.

If we are trying to create a more integrated and united Europe, it is all countries that must give up part of their sovereignty and that includes Germany. If the Germans ever decide to take on the role of Europe's leader, then they must integrate themselves fully in Europe and the rest of the EU member states.

And that means that the German leaders must also take into account and familiarize themselves with the problems or sensitivities that other countries have, or the exclusive economic and political factors that exist in every country. So when they decide on future European policies they will do so not by their experience on what works or has worked in Germany in the past, but what would be good for the whole Europe collectively.

Right now they clumsily are trying to "unify" Europe in the same way they did for Germany's re-unification. But it is obvious that what worked for the German nation, can not work for a mosaic of different nations that comprise the EU, simply because of the diversity of European economies, mentalities, cultures and the political and historic factors that have shaped them.

I can only wish as a European and a Greek for the German voters to take into their consideration what is good for Europe in general, not what it only appeals to them. It is clear that Angela Merkel's policies are damaging the European project, by creating divisions and fractures within the EU and the public opinion of its member states. Sadly the reality is that neither the German voters, or any other nation in our continent, are ready or willing to change their political mentality and traditions. And that is bad for Europe.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

José Mújica – a labour president as one should be.

It is undeniable that what Europe lacks at this moment is an inspiring leadership, a true leader that will focus on the necessary reforms that are needed for his country. The crisis that our continent is currently going through, is not just an economic but also social, political, cultural and moral.

In Greece we have a saying, that "the fish stinks from its head." And that is a very good reflection of today's Greek and European political reality. Our politicians and their governments are rife with corruption, serving the interests of the global elites and the capitalist system. They bother little with the welfare of the ordinary citizens and they have lost any contact or reality with their needs.

In fact they are intoxicated with power and wealth, thinking of themselves as oligarchs. In a real democracy though, the politicians are appointed by the people and should be answerable to them. What really happens in Europe is that our politicians think that they know better and that they can ignore the concerns of their citizens.

One would think that will all their education, skills and background, because the European leadership is undoubtedly educated, that they would automatically attain people's and leadership skills. Unfortunately that is not the case. Because no matter how much you know about economics or politics, if you are unable to engage with the people who trust you with their votes, or you are unable to communicate your plans effectively preferring to ignore the public opinion, then unfortunately you are not a good leader.

Europe's misfortune is that it has too many professional politicians, that practice career politics and they will do anything to stay in power for too long. Anything but gaining the public's confidence that is. They prefer to engage with the big players in their country and with the international business and political elites, that will eventually support their political career inevitably prolonging it.

So what kind of politician is perhaps needed in Europe? For the first time the Eblana Blog will publish an article written by a friend, a Spanish Socialist living in Ireland, Mr. Álvaro Perez Escudero. He has found inspiration by the President of the small South American state of Uruguay, Mr. José Mújica.

Mr. Mújica has made himself heard in the last two to three years writes Alvaro, because of his unconventional kind of diplomacy and the citizen oriented politics that he's practicing, since he occupied his presidential position.

He was born on the 20th of May 1935 in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay and he's a descendant of
Basques that immigrated in the country during 1840. Pepe as he is nicknamed, received a basic school
education in the city quarter he was born and later started his law studies, which he never finished.

He instead became an active member of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement, an
extremely left urban guerrilla group, since the beginning of the '60s. In 1972, he was taken hostage together
with other Tupamaros, by the then dictatorial government and kept in prison, continuously
threatened to be executed should his people ever reinitialize armed actions.

When democracy returned in 1985 and an amnesty law was introduced, he was released and
dedicated his time to active politics. He formed in 1989 the Movement of Popular Participation, which
is a strong part of the coalition “Frente Amplio” (Broad Front- the Uruguayan left-wing coalition), one of the strongest Uruguayan parties.

Five years later he was elected as a deputy of Montevideo, then as a senator and ten years later his M.P.P. party received the highest number of votes ever. He was assigned by the then President of Uruguay as Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries in March 2005. This position made him very popular because of his ability to communicate open-heartedly with the ordinary people. Many others criticised him because of his "lack of professionalism."

Three years later he returned to the senate, announcing that shortly after he would run for president in the next elections. In June 2009, he was elected as the only candidate coming from the Frente Amplio and five months later, after the second election that the Uruguayan electoral system requires, he finally won with 52% of the votes. On his presidential oath swearing ceremony were present among others, Hillary Clinton, the Argentinian president Cristina Fernández, her husband Néstor Kirchner, the Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, and Hugo Chávez.

Pepe and his wife Lucía Topolansky, also a senator herself, have renounced the presidential
residence, preferring to continue living on their farm in a north-west region of the metropolitan area
of Montevideo. They work there as horticulturists for the past decades, under quite frugal conditions.

But his legacy and inspirational politics is not his struggle to become Uruguay's President, but his actual work and political ethos. He has been described as "the world's 'poorest' president", as he donates around 90 percent of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities to benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs.

One of them is “Juntos” (Spanish for Together), a housing project to provide poor families with appropriate accommodation. How many European leaders can you name that have actually done such thing? Their salaries are much higher than that of the Uruguayan President's, yet not only they do not donate part of it for charity, but they proceed with austerity policies for the citizens they are supposed to serve. Without of course taking a substantial salary cut themselves.

In June 2012, Pepe's government decided to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana. This move brought him a lot of international criticism, but also plaudits from the British magazine Monocle . In September 2012, abortion is decriminalized and in April 2013, same-sex marriage legislation is approved in the country. For a small Latin American country all the above consist a great achievement, that many countries in Europe are still struggling to produce.

If we want to reform Europe and create a better, fairer and equal united continent, we should leave aside the ultra-liberal yet conservative "Thatcherite" legacy that our leaders are promoting behind. What we need is inspiring leaders that will get on with the job, pushing for necessary reforms that will promote better living standards for all Europe's citizens and by all means, lead by example.

The problem is that the European ruling elite has a different, industrial and capitalist background. They are spoiled and used to the amount of wealth and power that they have accumulated. They have concluded their studies in the best American or European Universities, in which they have mastered the art of public opinion manipulation.

Their goal is not to serve the citizens but the capitalist system itself and preserve it at all costs. Perhaps the only hope or solution for Europe is to try and find politicians with less academic education, but with passion and love for their country, its people and the whole continent.

Written by Christos Mouzeviris and  Álvaro Perez Escudero. Edited by Christos Mouzeviris.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Reforming the United Nations.

The recent Syria crisis has once again outlined a very important problem, that hinders any quick political or humanitarian response to any crisis in a country in need. The issue is the inability of the United Nations Security Council of reaching to a quick agreement, on how to deal with a problem and take action fast.

We witnessed during this crisis how the Security Council was split and two of its members opposing the rest of the nations initial proposed response. And how can this be avoided since the United Nations and especially the Security Council, are reflecting and representing an era that will soon belong to the past.

The current formation of the Security Council was established right after WW2 and it includes the main players that came out as winners of the great war. It represents the then great powers, the two main sides of the Cold War. If we insist in keeping the U.N. and its Security Council formation as it is, then the organization does not longer represent the current political reality and all the changes that our world is going through.

There are 15 members of the Security Council. This includes five veto-wielding permanent members that are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.There are also 10 non-permanent members, with five elected each year to serve two-year terms. This basic structure is set out in Chapter V of the UN Charter. The current non-permanent members are Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Korea, and Togo. (Wikipedia)

What we immediately observe is that the 10 countries that are also members of the Security Council are small and they do not represent the BRICS countries, the developing and rising economic powers of the world. Countries like Luxembourg, Guatemala, Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Togo are small to make any difference to the Council decisions and others like Australia are very close to Britain.

The very existence of the Security Council is controversial, as it establishes elite nations with more say in the global affairs. The right of a veto is given only to the five permanent members of the Security Council and no other member state.

If any countries should join permanently the Council, these should be the BRICS countries. Brazil, India and South Africa perhaps even Japan, Germany and Indonesia should join as permanent members, so that the U.N. will reflect the new political reality of our planet. A more globalized world, with more emerging blocks and countries that deserve more say in global affairs.

Such new reality not only will reflect the real status of our planet, but it would end the monopoly and hegemony of the powers that ruled our world since WW2. Their squabbles during the Cold War, resulted to a lot of inequality and troubles in many parts of our planet.

The UN currently as it is acts more of block that promotes the old status quo of the planet. It does not represent all regions equally and is rather a organization that either has limited authority, or its authority can be ignored by the global powers if it does not suit them. A typical example of this situation is America, that has repeatedly ignored the UN's decision and enacted wars that did not have the organization's approval.

An option would be to scrap the Security Council altogether and give an equal say in all countries that are UN members. But such thing would mean unanimity in any decision would be almost impossible. So since we need to have a body within the UN that would regulate the organization, the Council's existence is  non-negotiable. But not its formation, responsibilities and functions.

Apart from the proposed expansion of the Council, another solution would be the rotation of its membership. There would be no permanent member and even the USA, Russia and China would have to lose their permanent seats for a period of time. In that way their influence over the UN and the world will be weakened.

Another scenario is for the European members such as France and Britain, to lose their seats in the Council, replacing them with just one. That of an EU representation, allowing Europe to speak with one voice in the world. Britain and France will retain their representations in the UN, but not in its Council. That of course can only be achieved, if Europe ever forms a common foreign policy.

We need to reform the UN if we like to see any real progress, but also equality in the world. America and the rest of the great powers of the past, should stop acting as the policeman in the world and have an absolute say on what is happening in it. The decisions of the organization should be respected by all and implemented fast.

For that to happen we need to give more powers and authority to the UN, limiting the influence of USA and the Security Council, or diversifying its membership and its roles. The organization should become more active and fast acting. And even the location of its headquarters should be reconsidered, if America decides to ignore the UN's ruling ever again. Perhaps a new proposed location would be away from the old powers and in one of the rising countries like Brazil or India. 

We need to promote a more politically and economically diversified world, that will not continue the old traditional divisions between East and West, North and South. And for that to be achieved we need to embrace the rise of new powers in our planet, giving them a stronger voice to counterpart the established ones. It is within the interests of all of us to end the hegemony of the winners of WW2, creating a more equal planet for everybody.