Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Building bridges between the citizens and the EU.

For the past years we have experienced the lack of communication between the EU institutions and the citizens, leading to a lot of misunderstandings, misinformation and an overall confusion that leads to negative and often mistaken perceptions of how the EU works.

And while it is undeniable that the block of 28 countries has many shortcomings, the citizens’ anger is often mistakenly pointed towards it. During the European Year of Citizens 2013, one of the main discussions in the numerous conferences that took place focusing on citizen participation, was the failure of the EU institutions to reach out and engaging the European voters. 

Most European states have already a number of NGOs that are doing the job which the governments of the EU member states should be doing: explaining the EU to its citizens. In Ireland this role is filled by the European Movement of Ireland (EMI), a remarkable organization that for decades now is working to fill the gaps in the knowledge of Irish citizens about the EU. 

The EMI is an independent, not-for-profit, membership-based organization working to develop the connection between Ireland and Europe. Founded in 1954 it is the oldest Irish organization dealing with the EU, pre-dating Ireland’s membership of the Union in 1973 by almost twenty years.

In an interview with Neale Richmond, the policy and projects manager of the organization, we looked at the work that the EMI is doing in Ireland, how the Irish people view the EU, the mistakes and failures of the Irish government and that of the EU itself.  

Neale emphasized that the main goal of the EMI is seeking to build a connection between Ireland and the EU at every level, mainly by working with young people, business leaders, students and the general population. “Making sure they are aware of Ireland’s role in the EU and are able to access information about it,” he explains.

The European Movement is not a federalist organization. “We do not believe in a federal Europe, though it is hard to put a label on such idea. A lot of people would say that Europe is a federal entity already,” Neale adds. 

At this stage the EU is changing rapidly. What has started off in the ‘50s as the European Coal and Steal Commission has now been integrated massively. 

“In EMI we do not take sides in referendums, we are not the European Federalists. We solely provide information, though we are supportive of deeper integration to the extent that it can benefit not just Ireland but the European Union as a whole” explains Neale.

But if further integration requires another treaty, the EMI thinks that now is not the time to do it. “We’ve had a huge amount of treaty changing in the last decade and that’s affected the EU. The organization needs time to catch up with itself, to implement the reforms agreed before looking to reform again,” Neale says. 

Besides further integration is already happening according to Neale, as we have a multi-speed Europe. Many countries are opting out from the euro-zone, the Schengen Agreement and many other EU policies, yet some European nations want to go a bit deeper. 

“In the EMI we would like to see Ireland being part of the Schengen and probably have a directly elected EU Commission. This is the kind of deeper integration that we would support,” mentions Neale.

As the EMI is a membership based organization, dealing with their members and running events or briefings that are of interest to them, is their first priority. It is an independent body, so they are in the position to offer constructive criticism of EU.

The organization is also the national implementation body for the Blue Star Program, which is a primary school initiative. It runs in over 100 schools, teaching children about Ireland’s role in the EU, but also covering geographical, institutional, historic and cultural subjects about it.

In addition they do a number of talks and training for secondary school and third level students, depending whether they are simply looking career information or something to do with their course. 

EMI furthermore runs the College of Europe Scholarship program for Ireland, that is reaching out to people who graduate from the University. Finally they run a number of in house training events for businesses and government departments about the EU. 

Neale strongly believes that Ireland’s EU membership was “definitely” beneficial. Even though its membership has not been 100% positive, it has made a really huge difference in the economic and social development of the country. 

And that belief is shared by the EMI supporters. According to a poll conducted by the organization last January, they found that 86% of the Irish people are still in favor of their country’s membership in the EU.
Of course there are certain sections of society that have issues with the EU. 

“There will always going to be people that oppose it, because of their political views. They just do not approve the block’s general approach,” Neale says. “Our job is not only communicating the EU with people who support it,” he continues. 

Despite the support of the Irish people for the EU, it does not necessarily mean that they are blindly going to accept a treaty, or they are always going to be positive towards it. There is a huge problem with narrative when it comes to Irish-EU relations at the moment, whereby Brussels is always blamed for everything.

But when something positive is coming out of the EU, it is the domestic government that takes the credit. “Our work in the EMI is to show the positive, the non institutional and the non governmental aspects of the EU,” states Neale.

“We do it with great difficulty sometimes. The easiest audience to talk about the EU is our primary schools’ program. Because we can keep the basics and the simple entities so they really appreciate it,” he says. Across Europe, when people want to talk about the EU now, they do so about the bail-out, the common fisheries and common agricultural policies.

They do not think that the reason why we have the EU is because of the two world wars that ruined Europe. There hasn’t been a war in our continent since its creation and that is its greatest achievement that is often forgotten. 

“There is definitely skepticism towards the EU in Ireland, but not like in the UK. People here do not want to leave the EU, there are just a bit uneasy about certain things, there is a bit of confusion and it is our job to try and clear that up” explains Neale. 

People who are most positive towards the EU in Ireland are those of older age. Probably because they remember Ireland before it joined the EU and motorways were built, or the infrastructural enhances that the country got through the regional funding from the EU. 

It is also positive among the younger people too, who see the EU as an opportunity to do Erasmus, travel and work anywhere in Europe. The group that has the biggest problem with the EU is the age group between 35 and 50.

“Everyone refers to them as the squeeze middle," Neale describes. They are the people who bought at the time of the boom, and who are suffering the consequences. “They have one or multiple mortgages, they are probably in arrears and negative equity, struggling to pay child care, health insurance and they don’t see the benefits to the same extent of the EU,” he continues.

It is understandable that this generation is probably sceptical towards a lot of things and just the EU happens to be one of them. 

Another sector that is a bit sceptical about Ireland’s EU membership is the fisheries sector. It probably hasn’t benefited as much from EU legislation as the agriculture industry, but Neale believes that the deals are still relatively good, and most importantly they protect fishing as a viable industry first. 

“There are still fishing jobs and if it wasn’t for the EU, the Irish fishermen would probably not be able to compete at all on an international level. We do have our waters protected and have access to other waters, but most importantly the safety levels of Irish fishing now compared to over 40 years ago much better,” Neale explains. 

“That is something that isn’t appreciated and sometimes people probably give out that there’s too much bureaucracy, but it is there in their best interests. Plus you have to make sacrifices when it comes to sovereignty and other issues as an EU member state” he continues. 

Neale Richmond has been with EMI for just under two years and prior to that, he was an adviser in the Irish Parliament for four years and the European Parliament for another two. His role in EMI mainly involves running advocacy campaigns, doing policy research and anything to do with legislative work.

The second part of the interview will be published soon.

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