The recent local and European elections in Ireland saw some major upsets for the government parties reflecting the dissatisfaction of the Irish electorate with the way the economy has been handled ,and the burdens which have to be shouldered by the Irish taxpayer as they are being asked to shore up the failed banking system while taking severe cuts to personal income and services.
In the elections for the European Parliament the Labour Party had particular success with the return of three MEPs, one sitting and two new. Berni Brady talked to Prionnsias de Rossa, newly re-elected MEP for Dublin about the priorities and challenges ahead for the new European Parliament and the role of lifelong learning.
Speaking about the general outcome of the European elections , while de Rossa welcomed the successes for the political left in Ireland he points to the slight decline in the centre left vote across Europe generally and the increase of the centre right, in particular the far right and Eurosceptics. With 100 MEPs as a block they will be significant force within the Parliament. This will present both challenges and opportunities for the newly elected members but de Rossa is of the view that a combination of the broad centre right and left should be able to marginalise the agenda of the far right. The first opportunity in his view will be the election of the new President of the Parliament. De Rossa thinks that the current President Barroso as he goes forward again will not want to rely on Eurosceptics for his support and will therefore try and respond to the socialist agenda. This opens up possibilities for promoting a strong social dimension to the future work of the Parliament.
EUROPEAN SOCIAL PROGRESS PACT
Labour in Europe will seek agreement on a European social progress pact, with goals and standards for national social, health and education policy to contribute to the fight against poverty as well as Europe´s continued social and economic development. The pact proposes an alliance across governance levels- between the European Union, Member State and sub-national authorities- with the Social Partners and civil society to tackle the full employment and social dimension of the recession. De Rossa contends that only a strong partnership approach will be successful in paving the way for recovery across Europe. He is of the view that a new policy mix is needed to overcome the employment and social crisis, including short, medium and long term measures. The current budgetary stimulus should be targeted as far as possible towards job creation and safeguarding viable jobs as a matter of urgency. However further stimulus measures will be crucial to meet the scale of the crisis.
SUPPORT FOR LIFELONG LEARNING
Prionnsias de Rossa is a strong supporter of lifelong learning and contends that support for lifelong learning, adult and community education should be extended to ensure people not only have the opportunity to develop new skills to meet the needs of the future but that people remain motivated to work and learn. In particular he emphasises the need for support for community education in recognition of its ability to attract the most vulnerable people back to learning and also as a route into social and political education.
In January 2008 he voted in favour of the European Parliament´s own -initiative report by Doris Pack(EEP-ED, DE) on the Commission´s Communication , ‘Adult Education-it´s never too late to learn. Education and training are critical factors for achieving the Lisbon strategy, says de Rossa and more needs to be done in order to motivate people to participate. For this to happen lifelong learning needs to be compatible with family life. This calls for social, economic and tax incentives to promote access for adults to education and training.
He does however point out the importance of the review of the Lisbon agenda which was put together in 2000 in a very different context where the main emphasis was on delivering skills for growing economies . He is of the view that the social agenda has largely been neglected over the past five years in particular and argues that for a strong social agenda to succeed, support needs to come from national governments across the board. There is now an opportunity to promote this agenda in the new Parliament. In doing so Labour will work for a social progress clause in every relevant piece of EU legislation and social impact assessments when developing EU laws. They propose a European strategy on children´s rights to help eradicate child poverty and to guarantee access to education including pre-school childcare. Labour sees the social economy which currently employs over five million people in Europe as a vital source of inclusive job creation, particularly for people on the margins of society.
With regard to the Lisbon Treaty Ireland is likely to hold a second referendum in the Autumn of 2009. Many of our European neighbours were baffled about the reasons for the NO vote last time round. Apart from the mixed messages which were promoted by a number of right wing interests fuelling fears about issues like neutrality and abortion, De Rossa feels that people were essentially confused about what they should do. He also thinks that many Irish people were convinced about the unstoppable Celtic Tiger and while Europe had been good to them they didn´t need it any more. He contends that this time there will be some important differences, the main one being the change in the economic situation. The other difference is that there will be a much stronger civil society campaign currently being led by the Trades Unions. Already a charter group has been set up to promote the Charter of Fundamental Rights which includes the right to education and to access to vocational and continuing training. Coupled with this is the work being done by the Ireland for Europe group which is essentially business driven and the political parties themselves.
Prionnsias de Rossa points out that we must take account of the many different strands of the electorate and the many different audiences among the Irish voters ranging across business, civil society, education, social and cultural interests to name but a few. The challenges presented by the crisis now confronting us requires fundamental changes. In Prionnsias de Rossa´s view it presents us with an opportunity to persuade public opinion that socially progressive alternative economics is possible, sustaining our society rather than undermining it. Regulation of the financial sector is key and the choice is clearer than ever- progressive change for Ireland and Europe or ‘more of the same´ from conservative parties.
(InfoNet - Berni Brady)