Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Building bridges between the citizens and the EU.

For the past years we have experienced the lack of communication between the EU institutions and the citizens, leading to a lot of misunderstandings, misinformation and an overall confusion that leads to negative and often mistaken perceptions of how the EU works.

And while it is undeniable that the block of 28 countries has many shortcomings, the citizens’ anger is often mistakenly pointed towards it. During the European Year of Citizens 2013, one of the main discussions in the numerous conferences that took place focusing on citizen participation, was the failure of the EU institutions to reach out and engaging the European voters. 

Most European states have already a number of NGOs that are doing the job which the governments of the EU member states should be doing: explaining the EU to its citizens. In Ireland this role is filled by the European Movement of Ireland (EMI), a remarkable organization that for decades now is working to fill the gaps in the knowledge of Irish citizens about the EU. 

The EMI is an independent, not-for-profit, membership-based organization working to develop the connection between Ireland and Europe. Founded in 1954 it is the oldest Irish organization dealing with the EU, pre-dating Ireland’s membership of the Union in 1973 by almost twenty years.

In an interview with Neale Richmond, the policy and projects manager of the organization, we looked at the work that the EMI is doing in Ireland, how the Irish people view the EU, the mistakes and failures of the Irish government and that of the EU itself.  

Neale emphasized that the main goal of the EMI is seeking to build a connection between Ireland and the EU at every level, mainly by working with young people, business leaders, students and the general population. “Making sure they are aware of Ireland’s role in the EU and are able to access information about it,” he explains.

The European Movement is not a federalist organization. “We do not believe in a federal Europe, though it is hard to put a label on such idea. A lot of people would say that Europe is a federal entity already,” Neale adds. 

At this stage the EU is changing rapidly. What has started off in the ‘50s as the European Coal and Steal Commission has now been integrated massively. 

“In EMI we do not take sides in referendums, we are not the European Federalists. We solely provide information, though we are supportive of deeper integration to the extent that it can benefit not just Ireland but the European Union as a whole” explains Neale.

But if further integration requires another treaty, the EMI thinks that now is not the time to do it. “We’ve had a huge amount of treaty changing in the last decade and that’s affected the EU. The organization needs time to catch up with itself, to implement the reforms agreed before looking to reform again,” Neale says. 

Besides further integration is already happening according to Neale, as we have a multi-speed Europe. Many countries are opting out from the euro-zone, the Schengen Agreement and many other EU policies, yet some European nations want to go a bit deeper. 

“In the EMI we would like to see Ireland being part of the Schengen and probably have a directly elected EU Commission. This is the kind of deeper integration that we would support,” mentions Neale.

As the EMI is a membership based organization, dealing with their members and running events or briefings that are of interest to them, is their first priority. It is an independent body, so they are in the position to offer constructive criticism of EU.

The organization is also the national implementation body for the Blue Star Program, which is a primary school initiative. It runs in over 100 schools, teaching children about Ireland’s role in the EU, but also covering geographical, institutional, historic and cultural subjects about it.

In addition they do a number of talks and training for secondary school and third level students, depending whether they are simply looking career information or something to do with their course. 

EMI furthermore runs the College of Europe Scholarship program for Ireland, that is reaching out to people who graduate from the University. Finally they run a number of in house training events for businesses and government departments about the EU. 

Neale strongly believes that Ireland’s EU membership was “definitely” beneficial. Even though its membership has not been 100% positive, it has made a really huge difference in the economic and social development of the country. 

And that belief is shared by the EMI supporters. According to a poll conducted by the organization last January, they found that 86% of the Irish people are still in favor of their country’s membership in the EU.
Of course there are certain sections of society that have issues with the EU. 

“There will always going to be people that oppose it, because of their political views. They just do not approve the block’s general approach,” Neale says. “Our job is not only communicating the EU with people who support it,” he continues. 

Despite the support of the Irish people for the EU, it does not necessarily mean that they are blindly going to accept a treaty, or they are always going to be positive towards it. There is a huge problem with narrative when it comes to Irish-EU relations at the moment, whereby Brussels is always blamed for everything.

But when something positive is coming out of the EU, it is the domestic government that takes the credit. “Our work in the EMI is to show the positive, the non institutional and the non governmental aspects of the EU,” states Neale.

“We do it with great difficulty sometimes. The easiest audience to talk about the EU is our primary schools’ program. Because we can keep the basics and the simple entities so they really appreciate it,” he says. Across Europe, when people want to talk about the EU now, they do so about the bail-out, the common fisheries and common agricultural policies.

They do not think that the reason why we have the EU is because of the two world wars that ruined Europe. There hasn’t been a war in our continent since its creation and that is its greatest achievement that is often forgotten. 

“There is definitely skepticism towards the EU in Ireland, but not like in the UK. People here do not want to leave the EU, there are just a bit uneasy about certain things, there is a bit of confusion and it is our job to try and clear that up” explains Neale. 

People who are most positive towards the EU in Ireland are those of older age. Probably because they remember Ireland before it joined the EU and motorways were built, or the infrastructural enhances that the country got through the regional funding from the EU. 

It is also positive among the younger people too, who see the EU as an opportunity to do Erasmus, travel and work anywhere in Europe. The group that has the biggest problem with the EU is the age group between 35 and 50.

“Everyone refers to them as the squeeze middle," Neale describes. They are the people who bought at the time of the boom, and who are suffering the consequences. “They have one or multiple mortgages, they are probably in arrears and negative equity, struggling to pay child care, health insurance and they don’t see the benefits to the same extent of the EU,” he continues.

It is understandable that this generation is probably sceptical towards a lot of things and just the EU happens to be one of them. 

Another sector that is a bit sceptical about Ireland’s EU membership is the fisheries sector. It probably hasn’t benefited as much from EU legislation as the agriculture industry, but Neale believes that the deals are still relatively good, and most importantly they protect fishing as a viable industry first. 

“There are still fishing jobs and if it wasn’t for the EU, the Irish fishermen would probably not be able to compete at all on an international level. We do have our waters protected and have access to other waters, but most importantly the safety levels of Irish fishing now compared to over 40 years ago much better,” Neale explains. 

“That is something that isn’t appreciated and sometimes people probably give out that there’s too much bureaucracy, but it is there in their best interests. Plus you have to make sacrifices when it comes to sovereignty and other issues as an EU member state” he continues. 

Neale Richmond has been with EMI for just under two years and prior to that, he was an adviser in the Irish Parliament for four years and the European Parliament for another two. His role in EMI mainly involves running advocacy campaigns, doing policy research and anything to do with legislative work.

The second part of the interview will be published soon.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sorting out inequalities among the European population.
During the economic crisis we became more aware to a number of faults in the EU's structures and institutions. Europe is not yet an equal continent, but the inequalities do not stop just to the rich and industrialized "North" and the poor underdeveloped "South".

The EU harbors a number of them that do not exist just among its members, but also its communities,generations,genders,ethnic minorities and of course the old and new members of the club.

If the EU wants to create an equal Europe, a European Civil Society and in extension a fully fledged federal Europe, it can not ignore these issues. So far we have seen the EU Commission working in the elimination of the gender pay gap and some of the other problems that Europeans are facing.

But there are some issues that Europe has not tackled yet, either because there hasn't been enough support and mobilization, or simply because there are vested interests blocking any development towards finding a solution.

There are countries in Europe that saw an increase in the income inequalities between the rich and the poorer population. There is a rise in poverty overall in our continent, both in countries that are under a bail-out program and countries that have managed to escape the Troika.

The divide is also getting more obvious between the EU member states, with some of the regions remaining very poor while others getting increasingly richer. Germany for example is experiencing a surplus of trade, due to a weaker euro as a result of the economic crisis in the peripheral states. While Greece and Portugal are experiencing an increase of people that live near or under the poverty line, due to the same crisis.

As the EU expands, more states are joining that have a lower per capita income than the old members. Ideally that income gap should gradually have started closing, but the economic crisis revealed the painful truth. Europe is more unequal than India in income distribution!

Our continent can never be united under these circumstances and it is disgraceful to claim solidarity among EU member states when presented with such data. While a large part of blame can be placed on local factors and the national governments of the poorer states, the EU but also the entire European leadership is also to be blamed.

It is them who must agree and work on reforming the continent's block, making sure that the new members are treated equally and fairly, while they are offered the same opportunities. They have gone through painful reforms and bowed to any demand from the richer countries in order to join the club, so now they deserve to be rewarded.

Instead of Europe's leaders agreeing on how to lift them out of poverty as quickly as possible, we are witnessing populism and nationalism from their behalf. Restrictions on the free movement of citizens from the poorer states and those of the hardest hit by the crisis are being discussed or even implemented.

The main benefactors of some of the most successful EU policies like the C.A.P. (Common Agricultural Policy) are still the old 15 EU member states, while the newest ones are not yet receiving what they should be. It is going to prove very difficult to reform CAP, since the farmers of the "Old 15" will resist and lobby their leaders not to proceed with funds redistribution.

Countries like Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Baltic states with huge agricultural potential and a need to start modernizing and upgrading their agricultural sector, still do not get the full benefits of CAP. On the other hand the policy's funds are wasted on keeping the farmers of the old members either not producing or allowing them to abuse them.

The continent's industrial activity is also another matter of concern. It has been predominantly concentrated since WW2, in the Western and Northern nations of Europe. If we would like to create a more equal Europe though, we must start industrializing more countries, investing in innovation and creating new industries that will be based in the Eastern and Southern part of the continent.

In this way, Europe will gain a more harmonized economy. And while the elites of the rich nations will obviously object in losing their monopolies, I am afraid there is no other way. If the European leadership wants to unite Europe, then they should take a page out of USA's book and create a more harmonized and centralized market, economy and political entity.

Some sectors of Europe's economy were unfairly favored against others, as part of the solutions that our leaders chose to deal with the crisis. Giving more power and immunity to the banks, while destroying the public sector with massive privatizations and the liberalization of almost everything, increased the gap between the rich and the poor in every member state.

Our leaders used the crisis as an opportunity to push for unpopular reforms, some very necessary indeed but a lot of them absolutely unfair to the middle and lower classes of Europeans. The young and the older generations were particularly badly affected, with unemployment among the under 25s surpassing the 50% mark in certain countries.

Pensions were cut, while funds for education and social welfare for the young post-graduates were also slashed, clipping the wings of the most creative group of the society. Young people are forced to live with their parents until their 30s, since there are no jobs to absorb them in the working force. The older are left to make ends meet with disgraceful pensions, while those who are responsible for the crisis in Europe's economy, are still to face justice or any consequences.

With such disturbing reality in Europe, do we expect the EU or our national governments to invest in closing the gap between other groups that are faced with a lack of equal opportunities? Like the young generation of the lower classes in Europe, or that of certain ethnic minorities like the Roma for example.

Or investing funds to inform and educate the older generation about the changing continent, giving them access to the internet and teaching them how to use it, in order to gain access to such information. Perhaps even establishing Europe oriented media that will inform citizens of all ages and nationalities, about their rights and obligations as EU citizens, something that is necessary in order to create a European public opinion and sphere.

Europe chooses to waste money in safeguarding the interests of its few rich elites, maintaining the status-quo in the continent and eliminating any chance of substantial and long lasting reforms. Such attitude could prove to be a tragic mistake for the continent's integration, as it is proven to be almost impossible to unite hungry, angry people that are at each others' throats over funds and resources.

Europe will collapse under the weight of nationalism, populism and the deep inequalities while the EU seems paralyzed by our national governments to do anything to prevent it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A message to my fellow Euro-philes.
Ever since I moved to Ireland, Europe and European politics have become one of my main concerns and interests. For if it was not for the EU, I would have never moved to another country and change my life entirely.

So since I feel a citizen of Europe as well as a Greek national, for the past 8 years I have been actively engaging in debates in various political forums and platforms, as well as setting up my own blog and writing for other websites.

I strongly believe that if we want as citizens to have a more democratic and fair political system, either in our country or on a pan-European level, we got to actively participate and engage with politics and social issues. 

If we do not, then no change can take place and all decisions taken by our governments will be without not just our agreement, but our awareness too.

Because of the path I chose in life like my career, my love of travel and change of residence, I became a supporter and admirer of Europe and its culture, people, history and even politics. Thus being a "Euro-phile" or having a "pro-European, social/liberal and European federalist political agenda comes naturally and makes sense to me.

Once you leave your country of origin and move anywhere in our continent, you inevitably grow an awareness for everything that happens not just in your native or your country of residence, but in Europe in general as they all affect you directly.

Also to my amaze, there are plenty of other people with similar ideas or political views across Europe, either because they had similar life experiences, or simply because they are fascinated by everything that our continent represents and it has achieved during the past decades.

But now the "European Dream" due to the economic crisis that our continent is battling, but also because our ruling elites have highjacked the project to serve national or personal interests, has lost its appeal to a large number of European citizens.

Most of them do not believe in it anymore and even worse they have lost faith in democracy and other key European values, opting for supporting nationalist, populist and "Euro-skeptic" political groups or parties.

Europeans do not know who or what to believe anymore, or even if their participation and voting can make any difference on national but especially on European level.

All of us who still share the vision of a united continent, are acting as ambassadors of this idea. With our articles, actions, active participation and lifestyle, we can inspire others to start believing and engaging with European politics again.

But we also have a responsibility. Because our governments are not interested in explaining or including our fellow citizens in the EU project, it is up to various NGOs, social groups, think tanks but also ourselves to participate in debates and activities that will promote cosmopolitanism, pan-European-ism, and the creation of a European civil society.

It is also up to us, to criticize the EU and its institutions, but also the European politicians for their many failures. If we are not vigilant and critical of the EU then this role will be filled, as it has been so far, by the Euro-skeptic camp.

They are very successful in uncovering the EU's failures and we have got to admit that there are so many. Sadly it is only through their actions that we learn what is wrong in Europe right now and their attitude can be actually constructive in creating a better Europe.

Not that we have to share their views on the "solution" to the problem, by dismantling the EU and returning to a nationalist Europe. But we could use their arguments to underline the need for further European integration and present the citizens with the benefits of creating a pan-European political entity.

While it is acceptable to express anyone's passions and visions, stating in various social media platforms that we want to have a European federation "now", or that Europe should become one country without presenting or discussing the benefits that such solution would bring, we are risking of not being taken seriously.

Because the reality is that simply most of Europeans still maintain their nationality as their identity and they are following or are concerned for their national politics or social issues, more than they do for the European. They feel secure in their nation state, that they grew up in and know so well.

If we add to the mix the irresponsible immigration, economic and social policies that our governments have been pursuing the past decades, then it is easy to see why people are wary of anything progressive and liberal, that would change even further their way of life.

Together with the damage that the economic crisis has done by exposing the lack of coordination and cooperation among Europe's states, we have as result the majority of Europeans thinking of a European federation as something laughable or against their nation's interests.

People are simply not ready yet to accept a post nationalist Europe and who can blame them? The media and our governments have managed to totally distort any information about how the EU works and what it does, or can do for them.

So since it is partly up to people like us to play a decisive role in shaping the future of Europe, it would be very constructive not to direct our voice and opinion solely towards the European governments. They are not interested in reality in giving up the influence and monopolies they had enjoyed since the formation of Europe as we know it since WW2.

We should be focusing on the people instead and struggle to engage them with the European project in any way we can. Even by our lifestyle and actions we can encourage or inspire others to follow suit and adopt a more pro-European mentality.

If we manage to create a considerable pro-European movement, then with such strong support our governments will have no choice but to proceed with reforms and changes. Europe must be built from "bottom-up," and thus it is our fellow citizens that we must reach out to, not just Europe's politicians.

To create a Europe of citizens and not of corporations, we need Europeans themselves as the main component in creating the Europe we want. And it is ok if the the final result is not exactly what we would like, as long as we succeed in creating a more democratic Europe, with its citizens being fully aware and engaging with the EU project.

That is the legacy we must strive to achieve. Once Europeans learn how to work together, leaving behind blind nationalism, media propaganda and misconceptions about another, then history and time will look after the rest.