A continent in need of a vision

Benoit Lechat, editor of the Green European Journal, and Elizabeth Meehan, professor emeritus in politics at Queen’s University, help shed a little light on some of the most urgent issues facing the European Union.

It is ironic that the year in which the European Union received arguably its highest accolade, in the shape of the Nobel Peace Prize,  has also seen faith in the European project among citizens and political leaders alike fall to new lows.

The Green movement has long been a critical friend of EU. We recognise its role in keeping the peace in most of our continent since the Second World War and the necessity of addressing serious environmental and economic issues at a higher level than the nation state. At the same time, Greens are among the fiercest critics of the continued lack of democratic accountability and transparency in parts of the EU institutions and in the Union’s failure to make the case for integration to its citizens.

Yesterday I joined Greens from at least eight European countries in Dublin for a discussion on the future of Europe, one of a series of such events taking place across the continent as we work to set out a Green vision for the EU ahead of the 2014 election to the European Parliament.

Views from the many fascinating speakers ranged from uncertainty over the future of the EU as individual member states face their own separatist challenges, to defensiveness over the response of the European institutions and strongest members to the continent’s economic crisis, to confidence that younger generations at least increasingly regard themselves as European citizens and that the future is bright if leaders can deliver, and citizens embrace, “more Europe, but better Europe.”

Given that Greens across Europe are discussing these issues on an ongoing basis, I would not claim that those of us who met this weekend solved Europe’s problems. However, the possible outlines of a programme did emerge from the conversation and will undoubtedly play their part in shaping the thinking in similar gatherings.

1. Improved financial regulation is a must. Countries like the Republic of Ireland have harmed their neighbours’ economies, and ultimately destroyed their own, by a too-cosy relationship between the financial sector and politicians and by failure to keep even the most cursory eye on what businesses nominally located in their jurisdictions were doing.

2. Solidarity has traditionally been at the heart of the European project, but has recently been forgotten as member states race to assign blame for the financial crisis, grumble over budgetary transfers to support the development of poorer neighbours and engage in a new race to the bottom in tax rates, social security and workers’ rights. It must be rediscovered – central oversight of the budgets of Greece and Portugal will only be acceptable if Germany and France are equally affected and the concept of a social Europe needs to be defended.

3. Economic growth is becoming an increasingly contested concept among economists and environmentalists, but politicians and political institutions have been reluctant to enter the discussion. No individual member state has the clout to start an international debate on what sort of growth we need in the future, or whether indefinite growth is sustainable at all – the EU needs to lead.

4. Resilience, the flipside to sustainability, also needs to be taken up at European level. The history of capitalism shows that future economic shocks are inevitable. Climate change and resource depletion mean further environmental shocks can also be expected. Europe can better respond to these twin challenges if it acts in unison.

5. The ‘vision thing’, at the heart of the European project in its early days, has been all too lacking in recent years. A Green vision of a European generation, a cultural shift towards greater understanding of the nature of living in an interconnected world and democratisation of the EU was set out in Dublin. We cannot force the Commission and Council to rise to this challenge, but we can ensure the European Parliament does by electing more Greens (the fastest growing group in the 2009 election) in 2014.

The Future of Europe discussion series is coordinated by the Green European Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung (German Green Foundation). The Dublin event was organised by the Green Foundation Ireland.

Speakers at the event were:

Marina Barbalata (Green European Foundation)

Nuala Ahern (Green Foundation Ireland)

John Barry (Green Party in Northern Ireland, Queen’s University Belfast

Jill Evans MEP (Plaid Cymru/European Free Alliance)   

Vinay Gupta (University College London)

Benoit Lechat (Green European Journal)

Elizabeth Meehan (Queen’s University Belfast)

Eamon Ryan (Irish Green Party)

John Gormley (Irish Green Party)

Nicola Liebert (Tageszeitung)

Eckhard Lübkemeier (German Ambassador to Ireland)

Dan O’Brien (Irish Times economics editor)

Paul Sweeney (Irish Congress of Trade Unions)

About msimpsongpni

Mark Simpson is Environment spokesperson for the Green Party in Northern Ireland and Green Party coordinator in the Balmoral electoral area, Belfast.
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