Policy Briefing on Elections 2009

Posted on Tuesday, 19 May 2009

European and local elections are taking place in early June. It is a moment of major change.  Not just in Ireland but in Europe and across the world the collapsing financial systems have produced unparalleled economic upheaval with major implications for people across the globe.

Millions have become unemployed; many for the first time in their lives. Governments have been forced to bail out banks and borrow enormous amounts.

Services have been cut drastically. People who had become accustomed to a good standard of living have suddenly found themselves in serious trouble. Poor people have found their already meagre resources and services further reduced.

At a time like this it is crucial that the politicians elected to the European Parliament and to Local Authorities have a vision of the future they wish to see emerge and some appreciation of what is required if this vision is to be attained.

Catholic Social Thought places the dignity of the human person at the centre of such a vision. It also highlights the need to recognise that:

  • Participation by people is both a right and an obligation;
  • The Common Good should be at the centre of policy development;
  • All property rights are subservient to the rights of all people to subsistence;
  • People who are poor, marginalised or vulnerable should be the focus of special concern;
  • Subsidiarity should be at the core of decision making;
  • Solidarity requires recognition of the reality of interdependence in all aspects of life today.

The future will be shaped by decisions taken by, among others, those who are elected at different levels of the political structure. These decisions will involve choices.  These choices will be based on values.

Consequently, every voter should discover what the vision and the values of those standing for election are.  They can then vote for candidates who propose to build a future that voters would like to see emerge.

In this Policy Briefing we set out a range of issues we believe are important in the context of elections for the European Parliament scheduled to be held in Northern Ireland on June 4 and the Republic of Ireland on June 5.

We also set out issues we consider to be relevant in the local elections to be held in the Republic on the same day. 

We ask all readers to reflect on these issues and to consider taking them up with canvassers for the candidates standing for election.

We also urge readers to vote.  Very often people are critical of the democratic process maintaining that politicians ignore the will of the general population.

It is also true however that politicians pay close attention to the wishes of voters.

Elections are important for democracy. So we urge you to vote.

Give Priority to the Common Good Over the Market
Those who are elected in the upcoming elections need to recognise that solutions based on the market alone will not solve the present series of crises. Of course there are problems with the market and these must be addressed. But there is far more to progress than getting the market right. A balance is required between the various aspects of life.  Failure to recognise the need for such balance has produced the present situation.

The dominant world view that produced the current global crisis is highly problematic.   A great part of the current crisis is rooted in a philosophy of individualism that sees the individual as the primary unit of reality and refuses to acknowledge the importance of communitarian connectedness.

This philosophical approach sees the person principally in economic terms and considers the market to be the key place of advancement/development. 

In this understanding a person can measure his/her worth by discovering what he/she is worth in the marketplace. The consequences of this approach are all around for people to see.
CORI Justice believes that an alternative to the present dominant view of the world and how it should function is required.

We need to move from a world that is built on individualism, anxiety and greed to a world that is built on the reality of abundance, the need for generosity, the dignity of the person and the centrality of the common good.

It is not enough for economic activity to be profitable.  It is also essential that it promote the common good.

One example of this in practice would be a recognition of the fact that economic development and social development are two sides of the one coin. Economic development is required to produce the resources needed to provide good social services.  At the same time, however, it has to be acknowledged that good social services are required if the economy is to develop to its potential.  For example, a cursory look at the contribution a good education system makes to economic development serves to illustrate the validity of this claim.

Consequently, preference voting in the elections should be based on the candidates’ expressed views on these relationships - between the market and the common good, between economic development and social development. 

Address Poverty Not enough has been done in the EU to address the scale of poverty and social exclusion. 16% of the Union’s population is at risk of poverty. In  the Republic of Ireland the poverty level is at the European average but in Northern Ireland it is 20%.

Over the years the EU has taken a series of initiatives and funded a range of programmes to address poverty and social exclusion. These have had many positive impacts.  However, the fact that one in every six people is at risk of poverty in such a wealthy part of the world is a major indictment of the Union’s priorities more than six decades after its foundation.

Many issues addressed by the European Parliament have an impact on the quality of life of people across the Union. The Parliament controls the EU Budget and thus has a strong influence on how funds are allocated and on what programmes are given priority.

CORI Justice believes that the elimination of poverty and social exclusion should be at the core of  EU policy. Quality social services should be available to all who need them in areas ranging from health to education, from social housing to public transport.  Likewise people

with disabilities should be supported where necessary to play a full role in society.
Because of the dominance of the market over the common good in policy-making arenas within the EU in recent years, the elimination of poverty and social exclusion have not received the priority they require. Delivering real social cohesion across the Union and beyond should be an EU priority in the coming five years. Those elected to the European Parliament will be in a strong position to ensure this priority is addressed effectively.

Promote Solidarity
Solidarity was at the core of the establishment of the European Union which also sought to promote pluralism, non-discrimination and tolerance. These were seen as promoting human dignity, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.

A key dimension of solidarity at the EU level concerns social protection and social inclusion.  More than 80 million people in the EU were at risk of poverty before the recent economic crisis.  We deal with these issues on page 3 (cf. item on future of the welfare state).  But there are other aspects to solidarity in the EU.

Solidarity among EU States Structural funds and cohesion funds were put in place as a concrete symbol of solidarity between the richer and poorer regions of the EU.  Ireland benefited enormously from these funds and much of the country’s infrastructure was part-funded at least through these funds.

With the expansion of the Union to 27 countries it is very important that the regional disparities, which have increased enormously, are addressed with sustained and well-resourced action.

Solidarity with the wider world
Looking beyond the EU’s borders the Union’s solidarity should be expressed with policies that promote peace, human rights and democratic development. 

In practice this would require Europe to use its huge economic, political and scientific capacities to promote just and collaborative international relations.  It has used its resources to promote positive development across the EU. It should do the same across the planet which has so many people in great need.

Secure the future of the European Welfare State
The development of the EU has been strongly portrayed as a peace process.  It has been effective in that regard and has contributed to the process of bringing democratic stabilisation to some high-risk regions of Europe. 

Commitment to supporting the welfare state has been a consistent part of EU policy and strong rhetorical support continues.  There is much affirmation in the EU of the 'European Social Model'.  However there is no one dominant model of the welfare state or one dominant 'social model'. 

In recent decades a number of developments have led to questions being raised concerning the reality of this commitment. 

From the 1980s onwards there has been a reaction against the ‘interventionist’ state and growing support for market fundamentalism in the EU. 

There is also a questioning of the peace-building motivation for the EU. 

Instead we have seen the emergence of a view that the European Union should focus on building its power and pooling its sovereignty.  

This implies a very different understanding of the EU and has raised questions on whether or not it remains committed to the ‘European Social Model’ and to ensuring the continuation and strengthening of the welfare state. 

In recent years there has been a growing fear that the elimination of borders across the EU would lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ where welfare provision was concerned.  The evidence on this is mixed. 

Recent economic pressures following from the collapse of much of the world’s financial system have led to growing calls for a reduction in social welfare rates and the cutting back of social services. 

In many cases these calls are based on claims that are patently untrue e.g. that Ireland’s welfare rates are among the most generous in Europe when in fact they are at the other end of the spectrum.  However the lack of data to support the claims has not stopped these claims being made. Rather they appear to emanate from a wish to see the welfare state rolled back. 

The incoming European Parliament should give priority to ensuring the welfare state is protected and promoted. The recent economic collapse has highlighted the need for the European Social Model to be secured for the future.

Strengthen Democracy
Participation is a central requirement for democracy to succeed whether at the European or the local level.

EU Level
The European Union has been criticised regularly for its lack of democratic accountability.  This perception of the EU as not being very democratic has been strengthened by the priority it has given to economic issues and its failure to give social services and issues such as poverty and social exclusion the same level of attention.

Local level 
At a local level there have been several attempts in recent years to strengthen the participation of various sectors. The development of Strategic Policy Committees saw the direct involvement of a wide range of local people, other than elected Councillors, in the policy-making process.

The development of County and City Development Boards was meant to ensure the integration of local decision-making and planning and the elimination of parallel processes that often worked at cross purposes or simply ignored each other.  This has a long way to go before it reaches its goal. 

Involvement of people
At every level, the democratic process needs to involve people more.  Participation by as many as possible strengthens the institutions and makes it more likely that decisions are well informed and based on the experiences of all and not just the privileged few.

Both the institutions and the people they serve have a shared responsibility to ensure such participation is possible and that it happens in reality.

Promote Subsidiarity
The principle of Subsidiarity states that larger entities should not assume the roles and functions of smaller entities unless it is absolutely necessary.  Putting this principle into practice is meant to protect people from abuses by higher-level authority. 

A question of responsibility
It places a responsibility on these higher-level authorities to help individuals and groups to enable subsidiarity to be achievable in practice.  It also places a responsibility on the individuals and groups to play a responsible role in this process.

Ireland and subsidiarity
In practice, Ireland’s Local Authorities, have a range of powers and functions that have been devolved since 1976.  The principal ones are: housing and building; road transport and safety; water schemes and sewerage; development incentives and controls (includes planning); environmental protection (including waste collection); recreation and amenities; agriculture, some education, health and welfare issues; and a category entitled miscellaneous services that includes issues such as financial management.

It is clear from this list that these Local Authorities have substantial work to do.  However, much of the key decision-making is still controlled by central Government as it controls most of the finance.  

Government in Ireland has failed to honour this principle of subsidiarity in a meaningful way.  The recent programme of decentralisation was not really a decentralisation of authority but rather a re-location of the offices of some Government Departments.  CORI Justice believes that substantial further devolution of power to Local Authorities is required before the principle of subsidiarity is honoured in full.

Policy Issues in European Elections
The European Union has a complex policy-making process involving the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.  The Parliament’s role has been increasing in recent years. 

As the only directly elected body at EU level the Parliament constantly asserts its role and legitimacy in the policy-making process. 

The Parliament elected in June, 2009 will have many issues to address and many decisions to make.  These decisions will all involve choices.  All choices are based on values. So it is very important to ask questions of candidates in the forthcoming election to ascertain their stance on various issues and to discover the values that will shape the choices they intend to make.
On these two pages we identify some of the key issues the European Parliament will address in the next five years.  We outline why each of these issues is important.