You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s – Under Attack

Are our liberal democracies under threat? It feels like they are. I want things to change but I don’t want to lose what we’ve got.

Kandinsky
Yellow-Red-Blue, 1925 by Wassily Kandinsky

I believe that our liberal democracies are not democratic enough. I believe we need more control over the international agreements and policies that our countries sign up to and/or engage in. We also need to agree on policies that work for people at all levels of society; access to the essentials in life like housing, education and healthcare should not be dependent in any way on your level of income. I’ve said as much in previous posts but what I didn’t state so plainly is that, while liberal democracies need to progress and change to suit our globalised world and to be truly ruled by and for the people, the current system of liberal democracy is the best system of governance our world has come up with yet – by far. And if we shake up this system (and the current world order) without a clear vision of how to improve things and without a clear understanding of what makes this system so much better than other existing forms of governance we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

What’s so good about it then?

As I’ve mentioned many many times on twimii I’m from Ireland which is part of the European Union. Ireland works as a slightly left of centre liberal democracy. We have a social security system and a public health service that, though far from perfect, does mean there is a safety net there for you when you need it. A lack of affordable housing and a not-sufficiently-regulated market for either renting or house purchases has been a long standing issue for the country. There are plans afoot but until fairly recently it seemed like the government did not believe that the market needed as much intervention as others (me) believe it does. In fairness they have introduced rent pressure zones – areas of high demand where landlords can’t increase prices more than 4% per year. Also there has been an expansion to the mortgage-to-rent scheme which should help some of those with distressed mortgages. Had these changes been introduced in 2010 along with a massive incentives for developers and cordoning off a certain percentage of all housing developments for a mixture of local authority housing and the affordable homes schemes (which have been closed since 2011) – then perhaps we would have a much more stable and affordable housing market today. But it’s very easy for me to say that now. In 2010 I didn’t realise that needed to be done. In 2010 I actually had hopes that the market was going to correct itself. I didn’t realise the extent to which building had slowed down and how much people were holding off on selling or buying their homes for fear that prices might fall further. All I knew was that in 2010 the rent you paid seemed to match the type of accommodation you’d expect to live in for that rent. 2012 was when it was really obvious that not only was the market not going to correct itself but the high demand for housing in Dublin (and other cities) was driving up rents greatly and slowly pushing up sales prices too. 2012 was when I started to believe that what we need is rent control to ensure that rents remain affordable, to place the brakes on rising house prices (since renting would then be a viable long-term alternative) and to improve standards by allowing higher rent ceilings for housing with higher standards and/or access to public transport/shopping facilities/schools/hospitals etc. So how did the government respond in 2012? Were they even aware of the problem? Indeed they were, charities like Focus Ireland and Threshold and government funded agencies like the Citizens Information Board were publishing reports on the problem. And the then Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton did respond; she increased the maximum rent limits for people on rent supplement. It did help some people – in the short term – but without any controls in place to stop rents rising further it ended up aggravating the problem really. In fairness housing, and the issue of imposing rent controls, were the responsibility of the Department of the Environment.

Wait … how is this the good stuff?

Look, what I’m trying to say is that one of the worst issues that we have in our country has been caused by a lack of understanding of the different factors causing the problem and the interplay of all those different elements. We clearly need better systems both for reporting issues to government and then feeding back that information to the public in a way that gives people a fuller picture of what is going on so that we can properly evaluate the solutions being proposed and reach a general consensus on what needs to be done. I think that that is the essential component missing from our democracies, a lack of understanding of what others are going through, also the feeling that the issues affecting people in your situation aren’t understood or even acknowledged by the rest of society, and too narrow a focus on the daily actions and power plays of our politicians, parties and governments that fail to give people a proper overview of what is actually going on.

Yeah. Again, how is this the good stuff?

Because although this liberal democracy isn’t perfect it is clear that our media is free to criticise our politicians and their policies, and we are also free to read the reports and analysis. Charities, interest groups and government agencies are free to compile reports that are highly critical of policies which adversely affect people. And while the response might not be the best, might be far from it, it is also clear that our governments do acknowledge and can respond in some measure to these reports.

We also have Freedom of Information legislation that allows us to request information from many state agencies and we can use Data Protection legislation to request from any organisation in the state a copy of any of our personal data they hold.

Workers have the right to form and join unions. Employers must follow fair procedures when taking any disciplinary actions against employees and it’s not easy to fire an employee after they have been working with the organisation for more than 12 months (but if you’re seriously acting the maggot it’s not that difficult either). The protections in the unfair dismissals laws will kick in prior to 12 months if your employer fired you because of your membership of or activity in a trade union, or because you were pregnant or for some reason connected with your pregnancy, or because you’re a whistleblower, and in some other situations too. If you feel your employer discriminated against you because of your gender, civil status, family status, age, disability, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or ethnicity, we have employment equality legislation to protect you in those cases.

There was legislation in Ireland regarding equality prior to our entry to the European Economic Community (the old name for the EU – and could you please stop renaming institutions in practically every new treaty? ) but much of the legal safeguards we now have against discrimination by employers or institutions is via European legislation that has been written into Irish law. Since 1973 European legislation and case law has buttressed, progressed and aided enforcement of workers rights, human rights and consumer protection in this country (and indeed throughout the union).

Apart from increasing individual’s rights and freedoms the European Union has the power  to stop big businesses from engaging in anti-competitive practices (remember the Microsoft case?) and the EU appears to be more progressive about protecting citizen’s privacy rights than any other major power bloc in the world today (the ECJ striking down the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Agreement in 2015, the Max Schrems case – which has yet to be heard, and the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland v Facebook). Being part of a union that not only has the power to effect the way big businesses conduct their affairs but uses that power to enhance competition and protect citizens basic rights like the right to privacy is … pretty great.

la-duree-poignardee
La Durée poignardée by René Magritte, 1938

So in Ireland and in the EU all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds?

Now there’s no need to be like that… I know things aren’t perfect – or even alright for some. We lack truly effective channels of communication and dialog between the different parts of our society and more generally between citizens and our political representatives. That lack of connection and effective communication is even greater at EU level. This compounds the sense a lot of us have that we don’t have proper control over our state – or any over the union. And that feeling that we are not in control is intensified by the uncertainty about where exactly this European project – our union – is headed.

I think I mentioned somewhere in a previous post – possibly one of the ones I’ve taken down – that I love being from a small country that isn’t very important. Ireland can stand up and criticise other governments actions when we feel we should, no one really cares (but it can make a difference) because we don’t have the might to force our opinions on others – we can’t push other countries around. And I like that. A lot. I don’t want to be part of a United States of Europe.

That isn’t meant as a criticism of the United States of America. I don’t agree with many of the foreign policies of the US particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, in fact I strongly disagree with a number of them, but I see the US as a beacon of liberal democracy in the world. Here’s the way I see it, the US did free the world, not by interfering in the domestic policies of other countries – that’s not good – but by becoming the US in the first place. The American War of Independence started a chain of revolutions that ended up freeing many nations, and eventually got many countries throughout the world out from under the yoke of western European imperialism. It might sound a little overblown to say it like that but – yeah, that’s how I see it. The fact that US citizens kept demanding more rights and more freedoms, that they fought for progress was part of it too. It wasn’t just that they left the British empire, it was that they did so to gain more control of their nation, to be free and equal and allowed to make the best of this life – to pursue happiness – and they have kept improving and progressing their definition of what it means to be free and equal. The same thing has happened and is happening throughout our world. I’m not saying things are perfect or even close to it – still so far from it really – but demanding justice and freedom for all, it’s the right direction, right?

I know the history is far more complex than that. I’m brushing over all the crevices and cracks that would reveal a darker picture of the road we’ve travelled so far on the way to an equal and just world but I just want to point out the good stuff that’s worth holding on to.

Anyway I don’t want to be part of a United States of Europe and I don’t think it would be possible to create that type of union in Europe. I know that the history of the US is complicated and extends back long before Columbus crossed the Atlantic – but if you’ll allow me be simple – the union in America is one where different peoples came together to build one nation. By contrast in Europe, after two world wars had ravaged the continent, six countries, West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, decided to form a European Coal and Steel Community. This community grew out of an idea to pool the coal and steel industries of France and Germany in hopes that this would stop them going to war with each other because coal and steel were necessary for war-making, and because it was believed it would boost their economies. And it did. I’m going to cut and paste the achievements of the ECSC from the EUR-Lex website here –

The overall achievements of the ECSC were positive. The Community was able to deal with crises, ensuring balanced development of the production and distribution of resources and facilitating the necessary industrial restructuring and redevelopment. Steel production increased fourfold as compared to the 1950s and steel is now better, cheaper and cleaner. Coal production declined, as did the number of people employed in the sector, but it reached a high level of technological development, safety and environmental quality. The ECSC’s systems of social management (early retirement, transitional allowances, mobility grants, training, etc.) were of great importance in dealing with crises.

So yeah I’m keeping it simple by going into the history of the ECSC… which, along with EURATOM, was a precursor to the EEC which grew into the EU. The reason why I pasted in those achievements above is because they demonstrate how this kind of community naturally encourages an ever increasing level of integration in institutions and policies of its member states. The relatively simple idea of creating a common market for coal and steel (and it’s constituent materials) ended up having an impact on policies as wide ranging as environmental standards and employment rights policies. I don’t know if that’s exactly how the ECSC worked but I know that this “spillover” dynamic was a major force in the evolution of the EEC into the EU.

This post has now taken me days to write because at this point I try to briefly explain the myriad of legislative, procedural and policy changes that were necessary to create the free trade area in the EU and how it is understandable that the economic community turned into a union that was much more than a purely economic community … but no matter how I try the level of integration (and entanglement) is such that it is impossible to reduce it down to a few simple sentences. So maybe I’ll just have to leave that topic to a different post.

And after all that the small point I wanted to make here is a very simple one – the EU is not suited to the sort of union that exists in the US because the US is a union of peoples who came together to build one nation and the EU is a union of European countries that pooled their economies in order to reap the evident economic benefits and also to tie themselves into an arrangement that promoted a harmonious way to resolve disputes and integrate further.

European integration stalled somewhat over the 70s and early 80s as national governments were uncomfortable sacrificing sovereignty for increased integration. I remember reading articles in the 1990s criticising this period of stagnation saying it had put the Europe years behind where it should be and that monetary union seemed a far fetched prospect (I actually tried finding some articles there – I couldn’t – I think they were from The Economist and it would have been when they called the European currency unit the ECU). I wonder if the huge drive to increase the scope of European integration over the last 20 – 25 years is a reaction to this stagnation period – that the young politicians and bureaucrats of the stagnation period recognised the harm it did and so very determinedly pushed forward with integration plans. I have no idea if this is the case but it is one reasonable explanation for the fear that seems to be present in the EU of stalling further integration in order to make sure that all us citizens are on board with their plans.

So no not everything is all for the best in the best possible of worlds that is Ireland within the EU but the fact remains that there is a lot of good in being a member of this union and I’m not at all sure that Ireland would be as committed to equality and as liberal a democracy if we hadn’t become a member of the EU. So I don’t want to let go of the freedoms I have here and I don’t want to lose the freedoms I have within the EU or to lose the added protection they give to many of the rights I have in my own country.

alice neel - portrait of sam
Portrait of Sam by Alice Neel, 1958

So… where’s the threat to liberal democracy then?

I see three very serious threats to liberal democracy in Europe at the moment:

  1. A rise in a defensive and protectionist style of political rhetoric, both in Europe and around the world
  2. The ongoing instability of many areas of North Africa and the Middle East
  3. Russia’s fear of the EU’s enlargement and the steps she is taking to protect and increase her influence on the global stage

Look I’m no expert on – well, anything… – so these are just my feelings about things and rather than any attempt to justify why I believe these threats are real I’m just going to say how I feel about them.

People keep talking about things being like the 1930s but the grand standing styles of some politicians these days seems to me much more reminiscent of the run up to WWI – that moronic and utterly unnecessary world war that created so much suffering and awfulness. That isn’t meant to be offensive to any soldiers. It is meant as an insult to grand standing ways though.

I wish that instead of militarily intervening in North Africa and the Middle East wealthy foreign powers would instead adopt policies of strategic investment – investing in stable areas – and I wish they would do so without any self-interest – beyond the fact that it serves everyone’s interests to stabilise the region. I realise how pie-in-the-sky that sounds. One country though that deserves a serious injection of funds is the Lebanon which has taken in around 1 million refugees since the Syrian conflict began – the Lebanon has a population of 4 million – that’s the same as Ireland, can you imagine such a scenario? I just read that Jordan has also taken in around 1 million refugeesIreland committed to accepting 4000 refugees over 3 years at the end of 2014, we have accepted some we’re still not at the 4000 figure though, hopefully by the end of year, as promised.

I think President Putin is courting politicians with inward looking nationalistic attitudes, particularly in Europe because I think he believes Russia would be safer if the EU broke apart. I don’t think that Russia is a liberal democracy but I think it is a fantastic country – the home of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Kandinsky, and so much more… how could you not think it’s great? And I think Putin is admirable – I wouldn’t want him as my President – but I might if I was in Russia. He’s very clever, his ability to strategise seems phenomenal and I think he wants to progress Russia’s interests. And I can understand why the large and rather fast-paced expansion of the EU over the last 20 years would be a cause of concern. I don’t think he needs to be concerned but yes, in Russia’s position I would be concerned too. That said I’m livid at what I believe is a concerted effort by Russia to undermine the faith people living in liberal democracies have in their governments and their institutions. I hope the sovereign states of Europe will together agree how to best respond to this threat. No grand-standing – but we should make sure and protect what we’ve got.