Brexit and the need to democratise Europe

Europe GhentBrendan Ogle: This week’s developments in relation to Brexit have brought the interaction between Britain, Ireland and Europe centre-stage again. The European Union’s approach to these matters sometimes doesn’t get the same notice here as that of our neighbours in the United Kingdom.

Last week I attended a Conference in Ghent, Belgium,where I spoke on this matter. In my address, I spoke about the need for real dialogue about a fairer, better Europe and how the absence of such a dialogue is creating the space for the rise of the Far Right. My speech is reprinted below:


The European Union as it is currently structured must democratise and reform.

It is not hard to find evidence of undemocratic, nay anti-democratic, behaviours from the European Institutions towards its citizens. The failure of the unelected European Commission to give expression to the single European Citizens Initiative we have seen around the human ‘Right2Water’ is a perfect example of this.  1,884,790 citizens campaigned, and the European Parliament voted to implement, the human Right to Water as recognised by the United Nations in 2010. However despite these massive exercises in both direct and parliamentary democracy, the European Commission has failed to permit legislation to be enacted vindicating this vital human right – a right inextricably linked to the right to life itself.

As a result we have seen water shuts-offs within the EU, and efforts by companies such a Veolia to commodify our water. In 2013, the now Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan even boasted on national television that he would turn Irish families water ‘down to a trickle’ if our citizens didn’t pay a second water tax.

We didn’t.

Hundreds of thousands of us campaigned and refused to pay, we won and got the tax abolished – at least for now – but the threat to our right to water persists through the anti-democratic nature of the European Commission. As the European Balcony Project Manifesto states, it is time to give the European Parliament the power to make law.

Time prevents me from going into too much detail of other undemocratic aspects but giving little Ireland, with less than 1% of the EU population, 42% of total banking debt following the 2008 collapse of capitalism was not an exercise in democracy. It was an exercise in bullying, threats and dictates.

And what are we to make about the utter refusal of the EU to look at Brexit as a demonstration of the need for massive structural reform, as opposed to a battering exercise aimed at further punishing the British working class? After decades of Thatcher and Blair have they not suffered enough?

It is easy here in the centre of the EU to forget about a small island – Ireland – on the fringe of what was once social Europe. It is easy to bully and abuse Greece too. It is perhaps easy to refer to nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain as ‘PIGS’. And what of Italy and the imposition by the EU of unsustainable fiscal rules on the Union’s 3rd largest economy last month?

Does the thinking part of the EU consider that policies that battered and punished the Greek people assisted or diminished the growth of Golden Dawn? Is there no history of fascism in Italy that we need to worry about, and factor in, before imposing fiscal rules that can be used as building blocks for the populist far right? Even in Ireland, despite the propaganda from the neoliberal media that you get here on continental Europe, the EU is under sustained attack among the working class over its treatment of Ireland on banking debt, and we are seeing the rise of racist and xenophobic sentiment too.

The view in the centre of the European Union appears to be that a systematic departure from social Europe to neoliberal Europe is sustainable and carries no threat. Germany appears to be fine. Presumably the rise of AfD can be contained. Really?

Fascism is not on the rise in France. No?

Austria? Hungary? Italy?

Britain – now has not only UKIP but the English Defence League and others?

As I speak these words I have to constantly remind myself that this is 2018, because in some ways it could be the 1930s all over again.

A key component of neoliberal control is to buy and use the media to frame the debate and create the illusion that ‘There Is No Alternative’ TINA. Thatcher brought this approach to an even more radical conclusion – ‘there is no such thing as society’. But even neoliberals now must recognise that when the establishment shut out and demonise reasonable criticism and challenge, as happens systematically to leftists positing alternatives and reform, unreasonable and extreme views will fill that vacuum.

To many of us it seems and feels like no counter narrative to the current neoliberal hegemony within the EU is permitted. No egalitarian social remedies to issues like Ireland’s current housing emergency are considered. And not only that, but those presenting such solutions are shut-out, ostracised and even ridiculed. In this environment a society, a union, shorn of the capacity to bring forward popular and democratic solutions creates the perfect platform for populist far right movements to build. And that is what is happening.

It is no coincidence that the rise of the far-right is happening at a time of increasingly aggressive neoliberalism, at a time when participative democracy is often an illusion or a veneer, and when control of capital and wealth rests in fewer and fewer hands. Where our institutions act as agents for the interests of the privileged, to the detriment of the majority, not only is the rise of populist far right extremism inevitable, but the capacity of reformists to hold support for tolerance and a better future for all is undermined at community level.

We as progressives have a duty to resist racial intolerance, xenophobia, hate speech and attacks on minorities of all sorts.

The European Union has a duty to enact the reforms, to embrace true participative democracy, and to stop creating the conditions within which extremism can, and is, growing.

Brendan Ogle, Senior Officer – Republic of Ireland, Unite the Union

The Art of Organising Hope Summit, Ghent, Belgium

10 November 2018

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