Restoring Broken Faith in Europe

Note: This article originally appeared at OneEurope.

In a past article for OneEurope, I discussed the falling trust in the European Union and revealed figures from the Eurobarometer survey that show EU citizens are at an all time low as far as faith in Europe goes. Citizens feel that Europe doesn’t represent them. They feel that it is a technocracy and that it doesn’t relate to daily problems.

The follow up question then, is exactly how this can be fixed. How is Europe going to gain back the trust of its own people? Amid debates are discussing the United Kingdom departing from the Union and talk recently of Greece or Ireland leaving the single currency. How long can it be before citizens begin to question the very foundations of the single market, the Euro and eventually, the political Union itself?

Dissatisfaction within Europe

In Ireland, 91% of people felt that things were going badly nationally in 2012. In the UK, that figure was 74%. Both were higher than the EU average of 72%.  In Poland, by comparison, 65% of people felt things were deteriorating, but in Belgium, the very heart of the EU institutional body, the figure rises to 79%.

On the other hand, just 46% of those in Denmark believed that things were going on the wrong path at home. In Germany, 75% of people believed that things were generally going well. Germany, in fact, presents as a sort of panacea. Where every other member state quotes unemployment as a significant issue (usually, in fact, tallying in first place), Germany quotes Government debt as its most important issue.

Germany has emerged from the economic crisis relatively well overall. Recognised as a core leader in the efforts to fix the rest of us, Germany’s conceptual notion of difficulty is clearly going to be different from others who find themselves in worse places. Yet, to quote a contrast, in Lithuania 70% of people believed things were good at home, but unemployment still tallied as the most important issue.

Unemployment as a major concern

After following the data through and applying it logically to the situation, the facts lie thus: Unemployment is a concern for every single member state, in some more than in others, but always is high on the agenda, save in Germany. Countries with high rates of unhappiness on a national scale, like Greece, Cyrpus, Spain and Ireland also show extremely high concern for jobs.

The problem is that this isn’t getting any better and it is not confined to the EU- Croatia, due to become the 28th member state of the European Union, registered similarly high levels of unhappiness at home (97%), and similar difficulties (72% registered unemployment as a core concern).

Across Europe, we have lost jobs en masse and we have lost faith in our national governments. These two things tie together right across the board. But for several countries, since the economic downfall began, there have been significant elections and changes in regime. Even so, we remain unhappy nationally. Clearly, changing government is not the sole answer, in fact, it may not be the answer at all, when stability seems to be the prevailing aim of the medium term.

Many respondents to the Eurobarometer in Croatia highlighted the fact that the European Union provides the freedom to travel, work and study anywhere in the EU. In EU member states, almost universally, respondents quoted the free movement of goods and services as the core strength of the Union. Not only is it something Croatia looks forward to being a part of, but it is something Europe celebrates on a universal level, through all of its diversity of culture and norms.

Restoring faith

Restoring faith in Europe is going to be extremely difficult. The saying goes that all politics is local- no matter what work is done on a vague level on Europe, more than a tenth of its citizens aren’t employed. In its creation, the European Union has enabled more people to work in more places and to have the freedom to do so as they so choose.

The answer to restoring faith is actually in front of us. It’s not vague, it’s not hard to see, not even a surprise. We need to get Europe back to work.

 

Curating @ireland

From May 13th to 17th 2013, I was the curator of the @ireland Twitter account, hosted by WorldIrish.

At the below link, you can see the archive of my tweets during those five days, which focused on social issues like racism, homelessness, prisoners’ rights and immigration. It was also the week of Eurovision, which led to hundreds of sassy tweets on that topic.

@ireland- Aisling Twomey

Sharpening a Blunt Instrument: Future Defence Policy of the European Union

A Defence Seminar was held in Dublin Castle on May 17th, 2013, the second to be organised as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The seminar allowed EU Member States the opportunity to consider defence collaboration, capability and adequacy in the midst of the current economic crisis. Member States also decided the agenda for the dedicated European Council discussion on security and defence at the December 2013 summit.

Discussions at the seminar centred on the administrative aspect of defence policy in the EU.

The Lisbon Treaty allows for a common Union defence to be initiated with the unanimous support of the EU member states. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has stated that defence is not the daily business of European leaders, but that they do care about security and soldiers, jobs and budgets. Indeed, during this seminar, it became clear that the European Union is concerned for the background of defence, but not necessarily the actual combat nature of defence as the average EU citizen might see it.

In 2011, departing United States Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, criticised European defence policy, condemning defence cuts and stating that the US was tired of engaging in combat missions for those who refused to share the risks and costs.

European defence has undergone significant cuts in recent years, and while the debate about a common European Union army rages on, the seminar highlighted the fact that although the Union is entirely unprepared for the reality of a defence issue, the economic situation does not allow for the creation of a common force. Defence is being cut, not propped up.

Rini Goos, the Deputy Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, spoke about the need for transparency and a collaborative approach to defence planning. Amidst multiple funding cuts, collaboration and cooperation between member states may be both the best and the only way to fulfil the capacity gaps highlighted by Secretary Gates two years ago.

Much conversation revolved around the requirement that defence technology be upgraded to the cutting edge, turning technological research into tangible innovation. One core idea emerging from this debate was the need to develop cooperative efforts between civilian and military units, and further to open the defence market to small and medium enterprises.

Overall, the seminar highlighted the need for efficiency, with debates focussing on the need to increase capacity and innovation, while including civilian enterprises in the industrial market, keeping businesses afloat, generating needed revenue and research, and tackling the core, and extremely significant, problems with the defence capacity of the European Union.

The seminar brought to the fore many ideas for sustainability, innovation and development, and recognised the effect of widespread budget cuts on both the current and future structure of defence for an entire continent. Currently, states decide defence policy and cooperation is far from perfect. Drops in funding in most EU states facing at least some austerity in the face of a global recession has led to an increasing need to make sure that defence capability is delivered- and that redundancies are addressed.

Far from specific but full of good ideas, the seminar provided a strong preliminary opportunity to understand the current state of defence policy- and to establish the ways to fix what is a damaged instrument.

Failing Faith in the European Union

Europeans do not only distrust their own governments, but they are also inherently skeptical of the European Union itself, the Eurobarometer shows. This article was originally published at OneEurope

The Eurobarometer survey carried out in November 2012 was noteworthy mostly for the darkness mired in its pages.  Not only, it found, do Europeans not trust their own governments, but they are inherently distrustful of the European Union itself.

A matter of trust

68% of Europeans do not trust their national government, with just 28% trusting their national parliament. Distrust is extremely prominent in the soon to be 28th EU member state, Croatia, where 75% of respondents admit they distrust both the government and the parliament. 80% of EU citizens do not trust political parties.

In Belgium, fundamentally the home of the European Union, 76% of respondents distrust political parties. In fact, every indicator measuring trust deteriorated in this country.  A majority (56%) of respondents feel things are going wrong in their home country. In Ireland, that number is 47% – but 66% of Irish respondents feel Ireland would not fare better alone. The country is split as to how satisfied we are with our democracy; 40% are dissatisfied with democracy at EU level.

Just half of Europeans feel that their voices count in their country; a shockingly small number at 50%, demonstrating yet again the democratic deficit that often crops up as a debate topic on this website. 45% of Europeans do not trust the European Parliament; 44% do not trust the European Commission; 48% do not trust the European Central Bank. Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union; a body distrusted by 43% of European citizens. 57% of respondents feel distrustful of the European Union as a whole. 68% believe it to be inefficient; 51% believe it to be technocratic.

We could go through the numbers for years, and the point would still be the same: Europeans do not trust Europe. And in Ireland, the Irish people trust neither their own government, nor Europe – but we’re aware that we can’t make it on our own. Majorities of respondents in Ireland feel they are at least fairly well informed about the European Union, and almost 70% of Irish people feel in some way as though they were EU citizens.

Ireland’s woes

The issues are plain to see on our streets. Ireland’s current unemployment rate is at 14.1%. Across Europe, the number is 12.1%. There are 26,521,000 unemployed people in the European Union today: a figure larger than the entire population of Nepal.

For the young people, it is even worse – if that were possible. 24% of all young people in Europe – 5.69 million – are unemployed. That is a 1.5% rise since March 2012. That means that since March 2012, an additional 184,000 young people have lost their jobs.

When asked in the Eurobarometer, 48% of European citizens quoted “unemployment” as one of the most important issues in their country. In Ireland, that number was 65%.To put that into perspective, a mere 2% of Europeans quoted “terrorism” as a core concern. Ireland, a country infamously divided by terrorism during the Troubles, registered a 0% concern for terrorism, despite the notable and frightening increase in paramilitary activity there since the start of this decade.

53% of people in Ireland believe that the worst is yet to come. 41% admit that they live day to day and are unable to make plans. This means that almost half of the Irish have trouble with basic daily expenses: bills, groceries, utilities, education and so on. This means that young people are having trouble completing third level education, and that families are facing increasing debt, taxes, and charges, along with falling disposable income. With sadness, the truth must be acknowledged that thousands and thousands of young Irish people have heard the call of emigration- and they have answered in their droves.Rising above crime, terrorism, immigration and taxation, unemployment and the economic crisis are the core concerns in the collective mind of Ireland. The desperation for work is palpable nationwide; it doesn’t appear to get better but we are still making room for the continuing pain.

Ireland was an economic monster in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Celtic Tiger was roaring, with the economy growing over 9% on average until 2003 and almost 6% thereafter. In 2008, the Economic and Social Research Institute forecast that for the first time since 1983, Ireland was to experience negative growth. They were sure that recovery would come swiftly.

As we now know, Ireland was the first European country to enter recession. The property bubble burst and consumer spending collapsed. Ireland’s towering economy was a house of cards, and it fell fast. In 2009, the economy contracted by almost 7% – a burning thump to the stomach of the nation. Accepting the €67.5 billion bailout from the IMF and EU in November 2010 meant that we accepted austerity. We have paid for scandal after scandal, our banking system corrupt into depravity. Not one financial criminal has seen the inside of a prison, but we are more than happy to lock up small time thieves who are trying to feed their families.

Today, as you read this, there are 294,000 unemployed people in Ireland. It is a huge figure in its own right, and bigger than the entire population of Barbados. I am not surprised to know that Ireland does not trust its own government – and I am even less surprised to know that Ireland does not trust the EU. This hangover has been going on for five years. Doleful acceptance has brought us this far, but clearly this acceptance has come at a high price for those who seek to govern.

Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

Note: This article was originally published on TheJournal.ie

Standardised textile labelling is vital to keep vulnerable workers safe in developing countries like Bangladesh, writes Aisling Twomey.

THE RANA PLAZA factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed suddenly on 24 April, 2013. With estimates still rising, more than 700 are counted among the dead, more than 1000 among the injured. Others remain buried, missing beneath the rubble. The search has turned from hopeful to devastating; now, the searchers are seeking remains.

The Rana Plaza collapse is thought to be Bangladesh’s worst ever industrial accident, but it is by no means the first. In November 2012, Dhaka suffered a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory, in which 117 died. It was the deadliest fire in the nation’s history. The Tazreen Fashion factory, part of the Tuba group, produced clothing for Walmart and the United States Marine Corps, among others.

At the Rana Plaza, clothes were manufactured for Primark, Monsoon, Bonmarché, Matalan and at one point, the Benetton Group. On 23 April, inspectors discovered cracks in the building and requested its closure. According to the New York Times, the shops and the lower floor bank closed but the garment workers returned to work the following day.

The Ethical Trading Initiative

Monsoon, a founding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, is recognised as a leader in the ETI’s assessment criteria. The ETI’s slogan is “respect for workers worldwide.” Yet the factory workers reported that they were forced back to work on threat of wage withholding. Calling Monsoon an ethical trading leader clearly presents a misconception; the average garment worker in Bangladesh earns $37 a month, 60 per cent of the estimated cost of living in the local slums.

$37 is roughly equivalent to €29 – an easy amount spent in Penneys of a Saturday afternoon. Fashion is so cheap, until you realise that the cost in reality is sky high and rising every day, whether we see it or not.

Merriam Webster defines a sweatshop as “a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.” Rana Plaza fulfilled both, and nobody seems to have cared. The workers weren’t unionised, and their workplace fell from under them like a house of cards.

Why has Ireland not raised the issue?

You’d have thought that, at some point in the run of Ireland’s tenure holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a topic like this would come up for discussion. But it hasn’t, because combating sweatshops has never been a priority for the EU. Not only does the European Union not ban trade with factories demonstrating unethical practices, the tagging procedures required for clothing under EU law fall short of what transparency should dictate is necessary.

EU Regulation 1007/2011 outlines the reason for legislation on textile labelling: “If the provisions of the Member States with regard to names, composition and labelling of textile products were to vary from one Member State to another, this would create hindrances to the proper functioning of the internal market.”

Therein lies the difficulty. The European Union functions around the single internal market and regulates only within that zone; how that internal market operates with those less fortunate in other states seems to be less of an issue. This is possibly proved by the fact that country of origin labelling, while a topic of discussion since 2005, has never been implemented at EU level.

Consumers simply don’t have enough information

A 2011 report highlights the few benefits of country of origin labelling, stating that consumers would have better information but little else, because the label would have no impact on health and safety of consumers. Further, it stated, implementing the labelling would potentially lead to increased costs. The European Union often lauds human rights and citizenship, but in this case neglects to deal with a significant problem in the emergence of a globalised world.

The average consumer simply doesn’t have enough information to hand to aid them in making a judgement call. A standardisation system is required to keep fashion trading and the people who make it safe. As a consumer, I know that I am implicated in a supply chain that reeks of badness, but I feel that there is functionally nothing I can do about it, because so many suppliers suffer these conditions for just about every major high street chain.

An Abercrombie hoodie I own bears the tag “Fabricado Nas Flipinas.” The conditions faced by Abercrombie and Fitch factory workers in The Philippines earned A&F a name on the 2010 International Labor Rights Forum ‘Sweatshop Hall of Fame.’ Brands such as Sloggi, Triumph, Spalding, Hollister, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, IKEA, Mothercare, Converse, Marks and Spencer – every one of them have been caught red handed; baby clothes and homewares are as implicated as fashion retail.

Until we stand up and take action, nothing will be done to stop sweatshops. When we wear clothes that say “Made in Bangladesh”, that doesn’t tell us whether conditions there are fair or equitable. And in my heart I suspect that they obviously were not.

Country of origin labels should be mandatory

In the end-credits of many blockbuster movies, a line proclaims that no animals were hurt in the making of the film. If we can assure that oversight for animals, why can’t my jumper guarantee on a tag that it was made in a safe and fair working environment. Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

The dream would be a legal system of tagging. Each company should have to label clothing to state its country of origin. The factory name should be listed, and the EU should keep track of factories and how they operate. There are plenty of NGOs that already strive to do this work. When a company gets caught investing in sweatshops, a new tag should appear on their garments: Made in a Sweatshop. Punitive, deterrent measures are the only way to stop the festering carbuncle of sweatshop labour.

But – people will yell at me – it turns a profit. It keeps people working. Low paid labour is part of the developing world and that’s not necessarily a bad thing… But hang on; I don’t expect people to get Ireland’s minimum wage in the middle of Bangladesh. I understand basic economics. I want people to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. I want people to go to work and come home safely. I don’t want anyone buried under rubble for clothes I buy.

The chances are fair that you’re walking around wearing clothes that were made in Rana Plaza. And the person who made those clothes might well be dead because the floor collapsed from under her when she was trying to earn €29 a month.

It’s a House of Cards – but the floor isn’t going to fall from beneath you and I at all.

Aisling Twomey works in political communications and has a Masters in Criminal Justice from University College Cork. Her journalism work is available at aislingtwomey.me.