Between March and May 2022 EAPN Ireland carried out four workshops under the theme ‘Creating a social and inclusive Europe’. These workshops were organised as part of the Foundations for Futures Europe (FFE) project. The workshops aimed to increase participants understanding of the role of the EU, particularly in relation to its social dimension and to discuss and debate their views and proposals for bringing about a more social Europe. The workshops were all organised with support from the Communiversity office in the Department of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University. The majority of participants partaking in the workshops were adults, from a wide age range, who were interested in formally or informally returning to learning and education.
In general, participants had a positive outlook on the European Union and Europe more widely, but others had mixed views, and some were more negative. The most common words used to describe Europe were “unity,” “justice”, and various words to capture both the potential for peace that they see comes from being within the EU, as well as the connection and opportunity to travel and make connections with people from different countries. A large number of participants focused on the EU as being about politics and the making of rules and laws with some seeing this as positive and creating progress towards a more open and social EU. However, many viewed the rules and regulations as being about increasing control and centralising power, sometimes for the benefits of particular interests and sometimes corrupt interests. Something that was clear in doing this exercise was that many of the participants in all the workshops has at least some knowledge of the EU and Europe, with some diplaying a detailed knowledge of both.
Feedback from Workshops
Overall participants were positive about the benefits of the EU and felt that Ireland had made social and economic progress as a result, including in our standard of living. It was felt we have also become more outward looking, with the EU seen as a platform for progress and knowledge, supported by the freedom of movement and opportunity to travel and connect with people across Europe. These issues became particularly relevant for participants as the workshops took place while the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and the horrors became increasingly apparent to all. It was also felt that the challenge of finding solutions in Northern Ireland because of Brexit and the fears of a hard border, either on land or sea, have helped to re-emphasise the importance of multilateral political engagement and respecting cultural diversity throughout Europe. There was also a view, by a few participants, that we did not need to be in the EU to build good relations with neighbouring countries. While there was a feeling by one or two participants that joining the EU had led to some loss of identity, the stronger feeling was that cultural differences are recognised within the EU with the example given of Irish being recognised as an official language. Some participants felt strongly that the EU was a failure, making life more difficult for many, particularly in making the cost of housing and other services unaffordable while benefitting certain interests.
Only a handful of participants had been aware of the EU stated values before the workshop, but all thought they were positive and an important level of ambition to strive for. However, a large number felt that while some progress had been made, the EU was failing to live up to its ambition and the values were something still being worked towards. The extent of this failure was felt more strongly by some more than others. It was highlighted that your views on how the values are realised is dependent on your experience and where you live and are also directly contradicted by how some issues, such as how housing and homelessness, are being addressed. Respect and equality came up as key values while acknowledging that gender and pluralism were two big topics/values that have seen positive changes and show what the EU is as an entity. It was also stated by one participant that while the values are about people the focus of the EU seems to be mainly about institutions.
Many participants highlighted that the EU had played a part in improving social rights in Ireland including gender equality. An example highlighted as a key moment was the ending of the ‘marriage bar’ when Ireland joined the EU, which meant prior to EU membership women in Ireland employed in the public service had to leave their job. However, it was also emphasised that the rights of some have not been well protected in the EU or Ireland, with Travellers and asylum seekers named specifically. The question was asked as to whether we are differentiating when it comes to people’s rights? There was a lot of concern at the growth of food banks and the increased demand for them due to rising poverty, much of which was seen as hidden. Social welfare levels, including pensions, were not seen as adequate, and the rising cost of living was making this worse. Some participants noted that both Irish and EU politicians are making decisions removed from the reality of people and therefore resulting in bad policies. There was a strong view that even where policies could potentially have a positive impact on peoples’ lives that implementation and accountability were a problem. One participant observed that the fact that EU policy makers must agree on policy across different countries in a way that tries to benefit the lives of people across Europe, makes it very effective.
Proposals for a more social and inclusive Europe:
Towards the end of the workshop participants were asked the following question:
What should the EU do if it wants to achieve its values and create a more inclusive and social Europe? Below is a summary of proposals from participants.
1: The EU needs to make its policies in line with its stated values. There is also a need to ensure better social standards and rights
2. We must ensure that EU policy on social areas is implemented and put sanctions in place if countries do not conform. Part of this includes making ruling bodies more transparent.
3. Decision makers need to listen to representations from different areas and to the voices of the people so that we have the best decisions for people.
4. We need to learn from other European countries where there are good approaches and policies, such as how Sweden addresses childcare.
5. There is a need for education on social issues across the EU so people understand their rights and the role and responsibility of the EU and European countries.
6. We should look at how wealth is distributed in Member States.
7. It is important that the EU continues to recognise the identities of different EU members so to enrich the EU and so that we do not lose our identity.
8. We need less criteria for new countries to enter the EU and also support them to meet criterion.
9. We need to improve and raise the social standards of people in the EU and put social rights and social standards more at the centre in informing the EU. Many examples of this were highlighted including the need for access to an adequate income and acessible affordable public services
10. The EU and the Irish Government need to put more resources into education, health, and social services.
11. We need more hard laws on social areas in the EU than soft ones. However, where there are soft law approaches these need to be improved.
12. We need a greater focus on equality. This should include legalising same sex marriage across the EU.
Do you agree with these recommendations? Feel free to comment below.