The paradox of plenty: Why we all need to worry about precarious work

By Marie Sherlock.

Looking from the outside in, the Irish economy is performing really well at the moment – on course to have the second-highest GDP growth across the European Union (EU) this year. Malta and Ireland have alternated positions at the top of the EU28 scoreboard for GDP growth for the past five years.

Yet ask any young worker on average earnings about their prospect of ever purchasing a home, particularly in Dublin, or a hard-pressed young couple trying to pay childcare and a mortgage or rent out of their combined average earnings and they will probably tell you they don’t feel they are doing particularly well at the moment.

Income distribution

This issue goes to the heart of how income is distributed in Ireland. It is measured in two ways: the first relates to how much workers can claim from the proceeds of output in terms of wages and taxes paid, relative to the owners of capital who elicit a return in the form of rents, dividends and interest paid on loans owing. This is the labour-capital share of output. The second relates to how evenly that labour and capital income is dispersed between various households.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a five-fold increase in GDP here in Ireland. Based on adjusted labour share data in the EU commission’s ameco database, we know that back in 1987 some 65.9% of national income was distributed to households. Thirty years on in 2017 that wage share has dropped to 37.1%; the lowest across the EU28.

Labour’s share of the pie is shrinking

So the overall pie has got bigger but the slice for households from employee’s income has got proportionately smaller. Importantly, within that slice, we know from ESRI work on long-run income growth and income distribution that all households are better off now compared to households across the income distribution three decades ago.

What stands out is that with the exception of the lowest 10 per cent of earners, all households saw their income more than double between 1987 and 2014. Trying to understand exactly how much higher-income households are better off becomes complicated when we factor in non-earned income. This is generated from rents, dividends and share options. For the top 10 per cent of earners, self-employment earnings and income from other sources account for some 15 per cent of overall income.

What has all of this got to do with precarious work? In short, developments within the world of work, within workplace technologies and an emerging global trend towards even larger corporates threatens to skew the balance between labour and capital further and to widen the divide within labour income.

Precarious work and automation exacerbate imbalance

Plain old-fashioned greed in the world of work remains, with many trade unions reporting the emergence of a more aggressive breed of employer. New technologies are transforming how firms produce through increased automation and the digitalisation of production and the emergence of digital platform companies are transforming how firms are organised. These technological advances plus government tax and enterprise policy are combining to ensure the growth of increasingly large firms.

We know that precarious work in Ireland is not new. My union SIPTU started off originally as the ITGWU and was formed over 100 years ago to organised casual labour on the docks in Dublin.

What is potentially new, though, is that the developments set out above will exacerbate the existing imbalance between workers and business and that this will have far-reaching implications for incomes, for future consumer demand and the sustainability of the public finances.

In its 2017 discussion paper on managing automation in a digital age, the Institute of Public Policy Reform (IPPR) in the UK note that the changes brought about by technology challenge some of our fundamental assumptions about how the world of work operates. In particular, they highlight concerns about how technology may alter “the role of employment as a primary means of distributing reward, labour’s position as a central factor of production, notions of scarcity and returns to scale and how we organise working time.” Many of these factors point to an increasing precariousness and insecurity of work.

Taking these concerns to their logical conclusion, the IPPR notes that automation and the control of many by a small number of robots may give rise to the “paradox of plenty.” In short, technological innovation may give rise to higher output but lower gain for workers and a widening inequality in the distribution of income between the owners of capital and workers. Not only would this have very serious implications for workers and their household income, their reduced purchasing power would also have a serious longer term impact on the wider macroeconomy.

US superstar giants concentrate resources further

Technology is not the only future driver of a global and national trend towards declining labour income. The rise of so called “super star” firms also plays a part in concentrating greater amounts of resources in fewer hands.

In its 2018 Economic Outlook, the OECD highlighted an increasing trend among companies in advanced countries who are oriented towards allocating an increasing share of profit towards their cash pile as opposed to sufficiently reinvesting in their business. At a time when returns from bank deposits are at historic lows and the returns on investment are very high, we would expect firm investment to be booming. Instead companies have opted to sit on large profit piles and not distribute the gains between the owners and workers.

When we look at the Irish situation, the experience of US multinational corporations (MNCs) stands out. The presence of US superstar firms has long been a feature in Ireland with global leaders in pharmaceuticals and technology located here. In his comparison of multinationals located here, John Fitzgerald highlights the extent to which US MNCs do not repatriate their cash.

US tax rules have meant for many years that US companies located abroad could “defer” repatriation of their profits and thereby put off paying US corporation tax. Ireland’s low corporate tax regime meant it was more attractive to “park” profits in Ireland. While changes were introduced to the US corporate tax code in 2017 to limit the amount of tax deferred, the new rate is hardly penal. The result for Ireland is that approximately 40 per cent of corporate tax revenues in this country comes from just 10 companies, the bulk of whom are US multinationals.

How are profits distributed via taxes and wages?

So where does that leave us? While Ireland’s public finances may enjoy the benefit of US multinationals paying significant corporate tax bills here, there is a wider and longer-term issue as to how profits are distributed via wages, how they are taxed and how they are reinvested back into companies. The macroeconomic impact of concentrating greater market power and greater resources in fewer hands means there is less to be redistributed to incomes, taxes and by extension, social spending.

Special tax deals for REITS worsen housing crisis

Or another way to think about it is to understand how real estate investment trusts (REITs) operate in Ireland and their impact on Irish tax revenues, housing supply and the precarious life of so many renters. In order to encourage investment into rental and commercial property in Ireland, the Irish state waives the corporate tax liability on the rental income generated by these trusts and it waives the capital gains tax on any property disposals provided such sales do not take place within the first three years of purchase.

The outcome? Much of the new or recently built housing supply, typically in the form apartment dwellings, has been purchased by REITs with the result that control over this type of housing supply is becoming concentrated in the hands of a few and with that, the ability to set rental prices. This is not good in terms of rental market competition and rental price, it elevates the insecurity of individual renters to a whole new level in that large swathes of renters could face a change in ownership and all that that brings, and it is not good for the public finances in that it deprives the exchequer of revenue that could be used to build additional much-needed housing.

Direct regulation of companies

So how should we respond? No one measure will ensure greater distribution of income to workers. But a series of actions can. There is a growing volume of research that has found that increased financialization of companies is a strong predictor for the decline in wage share within countries. So a strong case must be made for enhanced financial and prudential regulation of companies. As a start there needs to be greater transparency in the reporting obligations of unlimited companies.

In order to protect workers from precarious working conditions, we need to see stronger enforcement of existing labour rules so that they are worth the paper they are written on. And we need to have stronger welfare systems to mitigate the uncertain effect of flexible working conditions. We know from looking at the experience within the Nordic countries, that there is a high correlation between well designed, flexible welfare systems, lower than average wage dispersion and a higher than average wage share.

Collective bargaining rights

And finally, we need a strong legislative framework to support collective bargaining in this country. That involves the right to bargain and to be recognised for trade union negotiations. In Ireland at the moment, there is the right to benchmark wages against other workers doing similar work, provided certain criteria is met. That is not the same as the direct right to be recognised for trade union negotiations.

Again there is a growing volume of research that shows that higher union density and greater union coverage are associated with a higher wage share and lower income inequality respectively. In their review of studies on the income share, Guschanski and Onaran (2017) highlight that union density is the most robust or consistent variable exerting a positive impact on the labour share within a sector when compared with all other variables.

Union density is the proportion of workers in union membership within a workplace. And in terms of the distribution of income within that wage share, 2015 research by OECD economist Oliver Denk finds that top earners obtain a smaller share of the total wage income of an economy when a majority of all workers are covered by collective wage bargaining. He used data from Eurostat and the international trade union database ICTWSS to compare wages shares with collective bargaining coverage.

Technological advances and the increasing concentration of market power by companies in certain sectors means that the power balance between workers and employers remains greatly skewed. In that context, precarious and insecure work will remain part of the workplace landscape. Overcoming it requires stronger unions and more collective bargaining- something SIPTU is striving towards every day.

Marie Sherlock is Head of Policy & Equality in SIPTU. Follow her on Twitter @marie_sherlock.

New secure-hour law is a gamechanger in the fight against low pay and poverty

By David Gibney.

Ireland has a very serious low pay problem, and a corresponding problem with poverty. We have the highest prevalence of low-paid jobs in the EU. Only a matter of weeks ago St Vincent de Paul stated that almost 800,000 people live in poverty, including 230,000 children. Finding employment should be a route out of poverty, but there are now more than 100,000 “working poor”.

One of the reasons for this is the lack of power workers have in winning pay increases. Ireland has among the most restrictive workers’ rights legislation in the EU, with no legal right to trade union representation for collective bargaining purposes.

The absence of this fundamental human right means workers have two routes in terms of winning pay rates that provide you with a meaningful and productive life: beg your boss; or go on strike and win the best possible deal.

Going on strike, though, can be extremely difficult. Especially if you are victimised for it. Which is exactly what many employers do.

Victimised for striking

When 6,000 Dunnes Stores workers across more than 100 stores in Ireland took industrial action on 2 April 2015, the very next day management began a campaign of retribution.

Workers who had worked 38 hours per week for years had their hours slashed to the bare minimum in their contracts, 15 hours.

For many, this was a cut from €418 per week to €165 per week, a 60 per cent loss of pay. With the dole being €188 at the time, it was clear what direction management wanted trade union members to go in.

Control over hours causes compliance

This level of control over working hours and therefore income leads to a very compliant workforce. Why would you go on strike if your manager can slash your hours the very next day and deprive you of your ability to pay your bills or feed your children?

“Is security over working hours used by management to control or intimidate you or others in the workplace?”

When Mandate surveyed workers in the bar trade, asking them this question, 44 per cent of all respondents said ‘yes’.

The survey of workers in the retail trade was even more stark, with 51 per cent of workers saying ‘yes’. When Mandate asked workers in Dunnes Stores, one of the largest private-sector employers in the country with 10,000 staff, whether allocation of hours was used to control or intimidate them, 85 per cent said yes.

Considering those two sectors alone – retail and bars – employ more than 350,000 workers, this is clearly a very large problem. And it’s why workers in those sectors could not win substantial pay increases – until now.

For more than a decade, Mandate had focused on winning secure-hour contracts along with pay increases. The first deal was done with Tesco Ireland in 2006. Penneys followed in 2013. It was clear in 2015 that Dunnes Stores and many other employers could not be persuaded, and so a political campaign to change legislation had to commence.

As Muireann Dalton, Dunnes worker in Newtownmountkennedy said: “If Dunnes Stores won’t change, we’ll change the world around Dunnes Stores.”

On Monday 4 March 2019, five years after Mandate started the campaign to win secure hours, new legislation was enacted.

Secure-hour legislation won

The legislation has many benefits:

  • Workers are entitled to a written statement of their terms of employment within first five days;
  • Zero–hour contracts are banned in almost all circumstances;
  • Workers are entitled to a minimum payment if their employer fails to provide them with work;
  • Wage rates below the minimum wage for trainees are abolished; and
  • Workers are entitled to be guaranteed hours of work that reflect their normal working week.

While all of these provisions are important, it is the last one that will hopefully enable workers to achieve far better pay and conditions of employment.

Under the new law, a worker has a right to be placed in a ‘band of hours’ that accurately reflects the hours they worked over the previous 12 months.

For instance, a retail worker on a 15-hour contract, but who has been working 32 hours per week on average over the past year, is entitled to be placed in the 31-36 hour band. Their employer can give them more hours, but cannot reduce their hours below 31.

Strengthening workers’ power

This new provision should enable workers to take industrial action with more confidence in pursuit of pay increases and improvements to working conditions.

And if there was any doubt over the desire for secure-hour contracts, almost half of Mandate’s members in Dunnes Stores alone, 1,500 workers, have submitted banded hour requests in the first month of the legislation’s existence.

The legislation also contains strong anti-penalisation clauses, yet still employers are attempting to dissuade workers from utilising the legislation by fear-mongering and intimidation.

Some managers in Dunnes Stores, for instance, have been telling workers that if they apply for security over their hours, that the company cannot give them hours above the bands. This is despite the Minister confirming in the Dáil that they can: “[A]n employee who is employed on any band of hours can work more hours provided both the employer and employee agree to same.”

Other employers are warning workers that they may be requested to do extra duties if they apply for security over hours, or that they can be fired if they work hours outside their bands. All incorrect.

Dunnes workers and Mandate activists win rights for all

It is important to state that the provisions within the Act were fought for and won by Dunnes workers and hundreds of other Mandate activists.

When the government tried to water down the legislation by seeking an 18-month reference period, Mandate members pushed back and demanded a maximum of 12 months.

When the government tried to introduce broader bands of hours, which would facilitate employers cutting incomes by more than 50 per cent, Mandate members fought back and demanded maximum flexibility of five hours per band.

This new law is the most significant win for the trade union movement in decades. We didn’t get everything we wanted, and it could have been an awful lot better if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had accepted Joan Collins’ and Clare Daly’s amendment demanding that any available working hours are offered to existing part-time staff before hiring new workers.

It will, however, enable trade unions in all sectors to win better pay increases without fear of recriminations. And this, in turn, can help us to challenge low pay and poverty and deprivation levels in Ireland.

David Gibney is the Communications Officer for Mandate Trade Union. Follow him on Twitter @davegibney and follow Mandate @MandateTU.

Ailbhe Smyth: Repeal warrior speaks on future challenges for abortion rights

Ailbhe Smyth has been fighting to repeal the eighth amendment banning abortion since it was inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, and has been fighting for women’s liberation and LGBTI rights since the late 1980s. More than any other individual, she has provided the consistent leadership, energy and commitment to alliance-building that resulted in the historic victory of the Repeal movement in 2018. She spoke to Irish Broad Left editor Emma Clancy on Saturday April 20 about the significance of the campaign’s victory; the ongoing problems in implementation; and solidarity with those in the North fighting for their reproductive rights.

When I spoke to Ailbhe Smyth last week, it was just days after the three leaders of the Together for Yes campaign – Ailbhe, Grainne Griffin and Orla O’Connor – had been recognised for their work by Time magazine, who named them as being among the 100 most influential people of the past year.

“This recognition was terrific, of course”, Smyth said, “but not for us as individuals. It was a very important decision made to put the three co-directors of Together for Yes on this list because it put the issue of abortion itself at the very centre of this international and influential agenda.

“The Repeal campaign had a big impact internationally, and this recognition by Time should be viewed as a ‘hooray’ for women, copper-fastening the victory of the Repeal campaign in the international mainstream.

“Consider the international context: There was a specific reason why we were recognised for our successful campaign for women’s rights at a time when these rights are coming under attack around the world. Our victory was a much-needed morale boost for the pro-choice activists fighting for their rights in so many countries, including in Brazil, in Poland, and in the US itself, where there is a massive attempt by the conservatives to roll back hard-won reproductive rights at the state and federal level.

“We also welcome Time’s recognition of our movement because it demonstrates that despite the rapid growth of the far right around the world over the past several years, Ireland was able to buck this trend in 2018, just as we had done with the marriage equality referendum in 2015. So we have proved that people and communities working together can stand up and overcome the far right and the threat they pose.

“That is particularly significant at this precise moment, when we have progressives and socialists fighting to resist the drift to the far right in the crucial European Parliament elections in May. At this particular moment, there is enormous value in our campaign being named, recognised and applauded internationally. It is an affirmation that abortion rights matter, that women’s lives matter.”

A ‘phenomenal moment’

Ailbhe and her fellow pro-choice activists are not sitting on their laurels. At an event held on 13 April 2019, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th met for a working conference with its members, focussing on key topic such as international solidarity, ‘The North is Next’, and implementing the new abortion law and services.

In our interview, Smyth outlined some of the practical problems of implementation of the new law in the southern state, as well as problems with the legislation itself. In a way, she said, the real work is just beginning.

“We were always very clear in our broad campaign, involving 120 organisations, that Repeal was just the first step. We had to remove the obstacle preventing legislation for provision on abortion; we always viewed that goal as the first step in a much longer and more complex process. As soon as the eighth amendment was gone, a huge amount of hard work would have to take place,” Smyth said.

“Stage one was Repeal. Stage two is the very challenging work of making sure that the legislation is implemented properly and that services are provided for everyone who needs them.

“In fact the legislation itself is actually more progressive in certain ways than we had hoped for or anticipated when we started this process after the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was enacted in the Dáil. The broadening of the the legislation came about as a result of hard lobbying and campaigning over years, and were given shape and substance by the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.”

Like most pro-choice campaigners at the time, Smyth viewed the creation of Citizens’ Assembly with scepticism. “We saw it as a delaying tactic by the government and a way for the government to hide behind a smokescreen – regardless of whether the outcome of their deliberations was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. But pro-choice activists engaged fully with the Assembly regardless, and ensured that they heard the facts and the evidence, and, most importantly, the real-life stories of what the denial of abortion rights had meant for women in Ireland for decades.

“The Citizens’ Assembly gave genuine consideration to what abortion rights really meant to women’s lives in reality, and in the end, they gave a resounding ‘yes’. They voted firmly in favour of the legalisation of abortion here in Ireland for up to 14 weeks without restriction, and up to viability where there is a risk to a woman’s health. They also voted in favour of abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomaly.”

The Joint Committee in the Dáil then broadly upheld the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, although it did not vote for abortion for socio-economic reasons, and reduced the ‘on request’ time limit from 14 to 12 weeks.

“Ireland took a new direction when we voted to repeal the eighth amendment, and it was a phenomenal moment. We were asking voters to take this major step in a new direction on this, and asking them to affirm that they believed women should be able to make their own reproductive choices,” Smyth said.

“The referendum result indicated that we had indeed undertaken this huge turnaround as a people and as a society, as abortion had previously been considered so taboo, unacceptable, unspeakable.”

On 26 May 2018, the Repeal the Eighth campaign won the referendum with a massive 66.4 per cent of the vote. The new legislation came into effect on 1 January 2019.

Transforming culture in the health sector

Smyth said: “The outcome was better than we hoped, but the reality is that women’s autonomy is still subject to a set of laws in place regulating our bodies. I am opposed to any laws placing restrictions and regulations on women’s bodies and limiting the right to abortion. But that was always going to be the case, especially in Ireland. It means we have further work to do. To my knowledge, Canada is the only country in the world in which abortion is not subject to legislation. ”

Ailbhe went on to say that while the new law is to be welcomed, there are certain specific restrictions causing problems for individuals and groups of people.

“The legal profession, the medical and healthcare professions have all had to undertake a sharp turn on this issue since January; they have had to make a 180-degree turn in their mentality, and transform a culture of prohibition to one of making abortion legal and accessible. It is inevitable that there will be some problems in achieving this transformation, especially as we are only 100 days or so into the process. But it is very important, of course, that these problems should be resolved promptly.”

Training has has already taken place or is ongoing for health professionals, including GPs, midwives and nurses, and training in abortion provision is also taking place in public hospitals. Precise numbers are difficult to estimate but around 1,000 medical professionals have had training since 1 January 2019.

There is a political debate going on between different groups of GPs – one group argues that medical abortions should not take place in a general practice setting. However, a larger group of GPs have responded to this claim by stating that abortion provision is now already established in a GP setting in Ireland, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, and that limiting abortion provision to specialised abortion clinics only would add to the stigma and shame felt by women seeking an abortion.

Smyth believes these debates are inevitable but is already heartened by the strong response in favour of normalised and accessible abortion care from growing numbers in the healthcare profession.

“We need to support this cohort of progressive doctors, nurses, midwives and healthcare providers as they are engaging genuinely with their colleagues in general practice and in hospitals to put abortion services in place to meet people’s real needs.

“All hospitals are now offering some level of service, although only 10 hospitals have full abortion services. But I believe that all hospitals have now realised that they have a legal obligation to provide the services that the people effectively voted for in the referendum. Most hospitals appear to be developing provision and training.

“It is about moving the whole profession along – and the health service as a whole – and the hospitals are very aware of this. There have been complaints made that guidelines have been slow to come into the hospital system, so the process is not complete; it is ongoing and requires further development. Of course, as campaigners and activists we would all like to speed up that time so that everyone who needs an abortion can access it here in Ireland.

“Doctors need to be reassured that the people support them. The people voted overwhelmingly in favour of this. And there are so many people in the medical profession working wholeheartedly right now to make choice a reality. They need and deserve our support.”

Smyth said that abortion rights campaigners are hearing relatively positive feedback about the state-run Health Service Executive (HSE) My Options website and helpline aimed at providing information, including about abortion services, for people experiencing crisis pregnancies. “In general in the HSE I think there is a broad willingness there for people to work together to make this happen,” she said.

Legislative problems

“As we always knew, some of the biggest problems are those contained in the legislation itself. The so-called ‘three-day cooling-off period’ is a prime example. The insertion of this patronising provision was a strategy to try to mollify the reluctant politicians, and it is proving to be problematic in all the ways clearly outlined before the referendum by health professionals, lawyers and campaigners,” Smyth explained.

“The ‘cooling off’ period involves three visits by a woman to a GP; the first one where she indicates she wants to have an abortion; the second visit after the three day period; and then typically she will have to go back to the GP a third time for the actual service (i.e., the ‘abortion pill’), provided she is within the nine-week period.

“This is clearly not good for women psychologically or emotionally. But practically it can pose major problems. People from rural areas especially are experiencing problems. There may not be any GP locally willing to provide abortion services, and they will have to travel to another town, or perhaps to to Dublin or Cork to see a GP. This means time off work, travel costs, and childcare costs which may well prove very difficult. Where a woman is unfortunately in an abusive relationship, it may be very difficult for her to ‘explain’ these visits.

“There are specific difficulties which can arise for trans people, for women living in poverty, for women with disabilities, for migrant women and particularly for asylum-seeker women living in Direct Provision, who are appallingly supposed to survive on €19.50 a week.”

Smyth said to make abortion provision genuinely accessible, medical and health services must put supports in place to respond to the needs of specific groups, especially people who are marginalised, who always take the hardest hit where access is restricted.

“We have a lot of work to do to ensure that women who are marginalised have genuine access to these services. We always have to bear in mind that people do not come in one uniform shape and size; we live in a society riven with inequalities and these inequalities come to the fore as barriers that are so important when a person may be in a state of anxiety or turmoil and in need of an abortion.”

‘Conscientious objectors’

“So-called conscientious objectors in the medical profession are causing problems of access for women, particularly in rural areas. But they cannot simply turn a woman away; they are legally obliged to provide her with a referral. A woman who knows or suspects that her local GP is anti-abortion will most likely have to travel to a GP in another town. Rural women are hardly a marginalised group numerically, but given the negative response of some GPs, they may be made to feel that way,” Smyth said.

“We are trying to limit the damage that can be done by a small number of people who are trying to obstruct and thwart women from going about their absolutely legal business. It will take some time to get the new reality into the heads of those who oppose abortion – that providing abortion is the law of the land, and a human right that can no longer be denied. Opponents need to be made aware that they cannot obstruct people from accessing their rights without committing a breach of law, and being sanctioned in response.”

Abortion after the 12-week ‘on request’ period

“Within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, abortion access is straightforward – at least in principle. Medical abortion (the abortion pill) is not administered by GPs in Ireland after the first nine weeks of pregnancy, and in the nine to twelve-week period, women are referred by the GP to a hospital service,” Smyth said.

“After 12 weeks, abortion is available only in restricted circumstances: where there is a risk of ‘serious harm’ to a woman’s health, and where there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly, which means that the foetus is affected by a condition which is likely to cause its death before or within one month of birth.

“At this early stage of service provision we do not yet have official data, in the public domain, on how either of these situations is working out for women. But I think it is fair to say that problems may well arise when it comes to ‘serious risk’. ‘Serious’ is a subjective term, not a scientific one, as doctors pointed out to the Joint Oireachtas Committee. It is open to differing interpretation, and dependent on the judgment of the medical professionals. Similarly, there are likely to be difficulties with late diagnoses of fatal foetal anomaly.

“A key point we need to bear in mind, once past the 12-week period, is that the law has not fully decriminalised abortion. As it stands, medical professionals are still liable for prosecution and imprisonment if they perform an abortion outside the strict terms of the law. This obviously has a chilling effect on doctors’ activities.”

The Abortion Support Network, which supports people who need to travel from Ireland (north and south), the Isle of Man, Malta and Gibraltar to have a safe, legal abortion, have told Smyth that travel from the south of Ireland has dropped significantly this year. Ailbhe said this is a very welcome indication that “in general the law is working for the majority of people seeking abortion, but that there are certainly problematic areas which will have to be reviewed and resolved”.

Upcoming review of the legislation

The existing legislation is due to be reviewed within three years. Smyth says abortion rights campaigners will be pushing very hard for full decriminalisation of abortion to resolve the problems with late diagnoses of foetal abnormalities, and to ensure that the abortion should be able to take place without the subjective ‘serious risk’ requirement. The three-day cooling off period also has to go, she said.

“We were also promised safe access zones by the minister of health, but for a variety of reasons, the bill has not yet come before the Dáil and we don’t yet have this legislation in place. It is urgent that we get it into law. There were a few extreme examples of protests, harassment and intimidation of women, especially in January.

“The Taoiseach has said he is seeking advice on this matter from the Attorney General on the conflicting rights at play here. But it should be abundantly clear that in any conflict between the right to free speech and the right to safe access, the fundamental right to security must be paramount. It is absolutely crucial to have safe access – so we need this legislation in place now.”

Solidarity with women in the North

Ailbhe said the coalition of activists and groups who worked together on the Repeal campaign continue to work closely together, with several shared priorities. One of these is to ensure the effective, swift and smooth implementation of the existing legislation in the south to make sure that all women, including those from the most marginalised groups, have access to abortion services if they require them. Another priority is monitoring the problems in the existing legislation, and building a case for reform to be submitted to the government as part of the three-year review process.

Of course, building solidarity with the pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland, where women are still denied basic reproductive rights is a top priority of the all-island campaign networks.

Smyth said: “There is a tremendous sense of solidarity. Last week we held an event where the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth met for a conference where activists sat on a panel themed, ‘The North is Next’, with northern pro-choice activists such as Dawn Purvis taking part.

“There is a tremendous commitment to solidarity ideologically, but there is also huge level of practical solidarity through the close cooperation of organisations such as Abortion Rights Campaign and Alliance for Choice.

“The victory of the Repeal movement undoubtedly had a big impact in the North and gave a huge morale boost to organisations like Alliance for Choice. And that is brilliant. But for me, solidarity is not about telling people how to follow your own campaign, however successful. Each jurisdiction has its own set of unique circumstances and specific context. There is no template to follow.

“What we can do is respond to requests for practical solidarity, respond to questions about certain lessons we learned, and turn ourselves into a resource that can used by the people on the ground who understand their own jurisdiction and its particular challenges best.

“I would hope that we can keep the pressure on politically in the North. What I hope to see in future is unified legislation on unified abortion service provision on the island of Ireland – that’s the kind of solution we have to put on the agenda.”

Defending women’s rights internationally

Smyth concluded by pointing out that women and their reproductive rights have been a permanent target of the far right, meaning vigilance and solidarity in the coming years will be exceptionally important.

“International solidarity on abortion rights is becoming more important than ever in the current political climate where we have an upswing in the far right in Europe, the US and around the world.

“Women’s rights and women’s bodies are always one of the prime targets of the far right – so we have to continue to work together, support each other, and share our resources in order to defend the gains we have won and push for more,” she said.

Photo pictured above: Ailbhe Smyth (centre), with Orla O’Connor, left, and Grainne Griffin, who collectively were named as among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people as the three co-directors of Together for Yes.

Ailbhe Smyth is co-director of Together For Yes and Convenor of Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment. Follow her on Twitter @ailbhes. Follow the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment @repealeight, and Together for Yes @Together4yes. To support the Alliance for Choice in the North, follow @All4Choice.

Trade unionists can bring class politics to debate about united Ireland

By Ruairí Creaney.

Irish unity is on the agenda. Across Ireland, it is being discussed in the media, at dinner tables and workplaces on a daily basis. While the endless calamity of a Brexit led by hard-right Tories, and the possibility of a hard border being imposed on our country against our will, has ensured that the debate on Irish unity has largely centred on our membership of the European Union, there is much more at stake.

The debate has begun, but it has struggled to move beyond questions of national identity and what Irish unity would mean for businesses and trade. Little attention has been paid to what it would mean for the working people who make up the majority of this island.

To broaden this debate, a group of us in the Irish labour movement recently launched Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland (TUNUI), an initiative aimed at shifting this debate to the left and at putting economic and social justice at the heart of the discussion, rather than just focusing on what it would mean for the business classes. We want to articulate a specifically trade union-led vision for Irish unity and why this issue is one that should be a concern of workers.

So far, we have secured the public support of 150 trade union officials and senior activists, including two veterans of the famous 1984 Dunnes Stores anti-Apartheid strike. To properly initiate the debate on constitutional change within the labour movement, we will be hosting a conference, entitled ‘Uniting Ireland – Uniting Workers’ in Dublin this summer. We are inviting trade unionists and progressive activists from across Ireland to attend this conference and take part in this historic and exciting debate.

Bringing class politics to this debate

The trade union movement is uniquely positioned to offer three important contributions to the discussion on reunification.

Firstly, TUNUI want to bring class politics into the debate. The partition of Ireland not only divided our country geographically; it divided the labour movement and it divided working people along sectarian lines in the North. This product of the counter-revolution benefited only the wealthy establishment on both sides of Britain’s border in Ireland.

The trade union movement represents the interests of the mass of working people who create society’s wealth as opposed to the wealthy minority who control it. We recognise that the interests of working people are in direct conflict with the bosses. When workers seek better pay, the bosses seek ‘efficiency savings’ in order to boost profits.

No such thing as a ‘national interest’

Consequently, we recognise that while class conflict exists, there can be no such thing as an Irish ‘national interest’, as if we all seek the same thing. Nations are made up of classes with competing economic interests. The economic interests of Michael O’Leary, for instance, are very different from those of the Ryanair baggage handler. The interests of the tax-dodging corporations and the lawyers and accountants who facilitate them are not the same as an overworked nurse or a primary school teacher.

An opportunity for a new beginning

Irish reunification will be a chance for our country to have a new beginning, and will present an opportunity for progressives to ensure that the mistakes of the last century are not repeated. Constitutional change will mean that we could steer our economy from serving the interests of multinational corporations and towards serving the needs of working people. That means ending the scandalous tax haven system in the south, establishing universal free health care and introducing proper trade union rights for every worker.

Throughout the debate on Irish unity, much of the focus of civic nationalism has understandably been placed on protecting the rights of Irish citizens in the North that are under threat as a result of Brexit.

Little focus, however, has been put on advancing the economic and material conditions of working people. The whole discussion up to now has been contained strictly within the realms of what Mark Fisher described as ‘capitalist realism’.

The ownership of industry and our natural resources is not up for debate. The imbalance of power between capital and labour will not change. The harsh rule of the market is seen as an inevitability. As with so much else in our neoliberal age, ‘there is no alternative’.
We seek to challenge this narrative. We want to ensure that constitutional change will lead to a massive social transformation that will improve the lives of working people.

More that unites than divides us

Secondly, the trade union movement is Ireland’s largest civic society organisation, encompassing people from every ethnic background. There is a colonial myth that working people in the North are bloodthirsty tribes that despise each other and are incapable of having a civilised debate about our collective future.

Furthermore, there is an insidious and snobbish narrative that unionist workers are afraid of having a debate about Irish unity. This is offensive, patronising and dismissive to an entire section of society and ultimately displays an underlying prejudice against working-class people.

Trade unionists have the ability to break down racial, ethnic and sectarian barriers and organise working people based on their class interests. We want to ensure that this debate moves beyond the issues of identity of ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ and towards broader issues of who gets to own our natural resources and how the wealth of this country is distributed. We know that there is more that unites us than divides us, and class politics is how we achieve that unity.

Independent advocacy of working-class interests

Thirdly, and most importantly, we want to empower working people to advance their own rights. Some in civic nationalism have called on the Irish Tories of Fine Gael to protect the rights of nationalists in the North. Again, these rights have not included economic rights.

No mention has been made of the fact that Fine Gael has always opposed the basic right of workers to collectively bargain; that they are opposed to the right to housing; and actively undermine the public health system in order to promote the private for-profit health sector. Why would anyone seriously believe that these people are suited to protect the rights of people in the North when they are undermining basic rights in the south?

Organise for real change in trade unions

Rather than appealing to Tories like Leo Varadkar or the institutionally neoliberal European Union, the most effective way for working people to protect and advance their rights is by organising into strong trade unions and fighting for those rights. This is how we won the 8-hour working day, the weekend, paid annual leave and every other right many of us take for granted.

For those of us involved with Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland, reunification is not about nationalism. It is about democracy and participation.

We are not nationalists; we are trade unionists, democrats, socialists and internationalists. The debate on Irish unity has already begun, and it is vital that trade unionists step up and articulate our vision for society.

If we fail to do so, we will abandon that ground to corporate interests and they will mould a new society in their interests. This would be a continuation of the tax haven status of Ireland, the crumbling public health system and mass homelessness. Trade unionists avoid this debate at our peril.

Ruairí Creaney is a spokesperson for Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland. Follow him on Twitter @RuairiCreaney.

Image above : Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland at their Linen Hall Library launch in February. Pictured from left are former Siptu division organiser Christy McQuillan, Debbie Coyle of Unison, Mick Halpenny of Siptu and spokesman Ruairí Creaney. Picture: Mal McCann.

Climate Emergency Manifesto launched by the European Left

By Damien Thomson.

On Tuesday 16 April, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the Environment Committee in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, calling for “Cathedral Thinking” on climate action – a reference to the huge and immediate mobilisation of empathy, panic and money at the sight of the Notre Dame in flames. The real panic, she said, should be about the “house on fire” – the planet – leading to a mobilisation of funds, emergency emissions reductions and state-led direction of the transition.

Today in Strasbourg, the Left group in the European Parliament GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green Left), has launched a Climate Emergency Manifesto ahead of the European elections taking place at the end of next month, firmly marking Just Climate Action as the group’s number one priority.

The manifesto, which explores six overarching demands for effective climate action, comes off the back of two recent developments: the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report from October 2018 strongly pushing for policymakers to limit global warming to 1.5°; and the global social movement known as ‘Fridays for Future’. These two developments have shaken the political foundations of the European Union (EU) in particular, and called into question its climate credentials. 

Climate emergency demands emergency response

The latest IPCC report paints a dark picture of the current pathway we are on. It gives us less than 12 years to enact “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” to every aspect of the economy to stay below 1.5° of global warming. We are already at 1° of warming above pre-industrial levels, and at 1.5° the chain reaction of climate catastrophe will be unleashed as we surpass the tipping point. We are already in climate chaos at cliff-edge: the emergency brakes need to be activated now.

At the 24th UN Climate Conference held in 2018 in Poland (COP24), Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action, stood up on a platform with the Canadian environment minister and other posing ministers to hold a big banner stating ‘High Ambition Coalition’. This was their way of trying to affirm that they are the leading parties at these high-level climate negotiations – leading for higher climate ambition. Needless to say, no-one was really convinced. 

The EU’s feeble attempt to promote itself as a global climate leader looks even more pathetic now in the context of over one million students across the globe coordinating a world-wide strike on 15 March 2019.

These young people are clearly not impressed with the self-congratulating Commissioner Arias Cañete’s level of ambition, nor of any state that claims it is doing enough. After all, the CV which qualified him for the portfolio he runs is based on his family ties to the oil industry itself. The next global strike scheduled for 24 May 2019 will set the tone for the European elections, demanding that radical climate action is on the agenda. 

As students gathered last month with their placards and chanted in more than 1,000 locations in over 100 countries worldwide, there wasn’t any rallying to congratulate the EU or the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ Ministers. Nor did young people chant “Carbon Tax Now” or “Secure the Rulebook!” They demanded climate justice.

The manifesto presented today by GUE/NGL is a response to this call and is commensurate to the demands of the striking youth.  A central demand to the global movement is a declaration of climate emergency – to effect an emergency response to an emergency situation. This manifesto is the Left’s way of hitting the panic button and declaring a climate emergency, as well as putting its climate commitments out there before the elections for all voters to see. 

Left approach rejects the market’s pseudo-solutions

The anti-capitalist Left has a nuanced approach to climate action – one that is clearly distinct from the Greens and Social Democrats, and of course, the Liberals and beyond who always appropriate the language of climate action to cover up their prioritisation of profits.

The Greens and Social Democrats prize the market and economic growth just as much as Conservatives, and consistently vote for the liberalisation of the EU energy market for instance, withdrawing the directional control of the energy sector away from elected governments.

Any real Leftist would reject this. We demand that governments are behind the wheel on the transition rather than watching markets fluctuate, and crucially, we are the only ones that reject the perpetual growth mode – the root cause of the climate crisis.

By removing the responsibility of climate action from governments and lawmakers and placing it in the invisible hands of the market, the Greens and Social Democrats have actively played an important role in this climate disaster.

While their intentions may well-motivated, the Greens have been the driving force in pushing climate responsibility off the desks of world leaders, by pushing for the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) carbon market, commercialised energy markets, the monetisation of pollution and carbon pricing – all policy recommendations from the fossil fuel industry itself. 

Climate crisis requires anti-capitalist action

The conclusion here is clear – only by being anti-capitalist can one be a climate activist. Anything less than this is the preservation of the status quo. Greening capitalism is indeed the most sinister form of climate action delaying. 

The manifesto launched by the Left goes to the very heart of the economic model that has created climate change. Overturning global capitalism may not be realistic within the next 11 years, given how it morphs and self-replicates in the search of commodities, but the forces of capitalism can be resisted. It is precisely here – in counteracting capitalist forces – where an effective response to the climate crisis lies. 

Keep fossil fuels in the ground

The solutions to climate change must come from outside the capitalist framework, beyond the logic of a market transition.  This is why this manifesto is about directly regulating the fossil fuel industry – keeping fossil fuels in the ground and phasing out their use altogether with strict time-bound targets.

It is about massive public investment, matching the financial responses already seen at times of war, responding to terrorism, or saving the banks. It is about regulating sectors to ensure sustainable practices, stopping the wild flurry of extraction and environmental abuses produced by capitalism. The Left is the only group bringing forward this critique and this response.  

Core to this manifesto, and a prism used throughout it, is that of the principles of climate justice. For the Left, these are not just pretty words to speckle our manifesto – they are guiding tools and tests. We stand for climate policies that empower communities, not debilitate them. We stand for a rights-based approach to climate action, including a right to renewable energy. We want an integrated sustainable development approach to climate action – ensuring the fight against climate change interlinks with the struggles against poverty, gender inequity and socio-economic inequalities. 

Just and effective climate action is our number one priority, and anything less than this is a climate crime. 

A copy of the manifesto in English can be found here. Other language versions can be found on the GUE/NGL website

Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left and the climate campaign coordinator for the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.

Irish Travellers are expected to participate in political ideologies that aid our own oppression

By Bernard Sweeney.

Since the formation of the Irish state, Travellers have been subjected to a sequence of oppressive policies, much the same as those that were weaponised against all Irish people prior to 1922.

Since the creation of the Free State with the liberation, albeit partial, of the Irish people, it could be argued that those who benefited most were the Anglo Irish – those who were either direct descendants of the British ruling class, or those who had become the more culturally anglicised by adopting a foreign class system of capitalism and exploitation. For Travellers, little changed under the new state. For us, it was as if the British never left; it was merely one oppressor being replaced by another.

Coloniser mentality remained

While physical elements of British rule were removed, the mentality remained the same; the system never changed except in name. This meant that Irish Travellers remained imprisoned and controlled by the leftover psychology of colonisation. The psychologist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon addresses this phenomenon in his seminal work, Black Skin, White Masks.

Fanon helps us to understand the complex ways in which identity is constructed and produced; the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that colonised peoples experience. Those who have lost their native cultural origins look to the invaders for guidance, and this produces an inferiority complex – and may then result in the colonised trying (consciously or otherwise) to appropriate and imitate the culture of the coloniser. It stand to reason therefore, that the upwardly mobile Irish then began to view Irish Travellers as they themselves had once been viewed by the British.

Settled people’s history tells of all the atrocities that befell the Irish people during the British occupation and conquests: the mass evictions, the brutality, the famine/genocide, and how our ancestors lived, suffered and died. But what we were not told was our own story.

Our history shall be written

We were not always known as ‘Travellers’. Irish Travellers were known over the centuries by many names – as we were, and still are, the living link between the Ireland before the British invasions and the present day. This is widely recognised in our contribution to Irish traditional music, oral history, song language, and our commitment to a clan system, something we still just about cling on to. Before we were labelled as ‘Travellers’ by settled people, we were known amongst ourselves as Mincier– a title we must reclaim.

During the Elizabethan Conquest, it became clear what the British intentions were when they started destroying the clan system, breaking down what was left of old Ireland. Gaelic Ireland had flourished for thousands of years, but this was now to come to an end, replaced by a foreign system.

Passage of time saw one generation of Irish people after another colonised, forced and assimilated into a culturally British way of life. In time the British language replaced our own: it was taught in all schools and universities; English history replaced Irish history; the traditions, cultures and structures were all designed and governed by the British.

The sentiment of this article is not anti-British, it is to illustrate that how sometimes we don’t really even know our own mind, so deep-rooted is this process. And how Irish society as we now know it is still a longstanding result of colonisation and 800 years of oppression that has not gone away.

Our education system is British, gone are the traditions of oral history in a language of our own. Our legal system, lifestyle and political systems are all drawn from the British. It stands to reason that after hundreds of years of this conditioning, that Irish society then turns on its own minority.

The social discord that exists between Traveller and non-Traveller communities is a symptom of systematic oppression, one that is rooted in the history of this island. Progress is often hindered by political bias and in some instances, political bigotry, but underlying this is a lack of understanding of how this history has created these divisions in our country. It should be stated that once this history and its psychological implications are fully understood, then it will be realised that to be anti-Traveller is to be anti-Irish. We are, after all, Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority.

Where do we go from here?

Creating a bridge to allow progression requires a forum of substance wherein big ideas and substantial structural issues can be examined and constructively presented to decision-makers.

I’d like to propose that a Traveller Citizens’ Assembly be established, modelled on the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, without participation from politicians unless selected by the Assembly. Let it be constituted equally of all genders and across all age cohorts and geographical locations.

These assemblies would be chaired by a barrister, lawyer or judge and the deliberations and recommendations of the Traveller Citizen’s Assembly would be submitted directly to governing bodies. Where legislative issues are deliberated, submissions would be made directly to Joint Oireachtas Committees.

Internal democracy

I and many other Traveller activists strongly believe that a Traveller system of internal democracy can be developed wherein Travellers nominate and elect our own representatives on to local authority policy groups, state boards, Oireachtas Committees and NGOs. This process will enable Travellers to democratically elect their spokespersons and representatives onto governing bodies charged with Traveller inclusion.

Such a system will in and of itself provide a mechanism for aspiring public representatives to develop their skills, and it would give Irish Travellers the platform to build a better society for all people and communities.

Politically informed decision-making is now more important than ever. When we are living in a world with a multitude of issues, each decision has a profound effect both on the planet and its inhabitants.

Electoral education and participation

There are many steps can be taken. Voting is vital and maybe should be made compulsory, there perhaps could be also be a political education process to at least try to inform people of the various political ideologies, so that more informed decisions can take place.

Inclusiveness In the electoral process could be increased by making it easier for people from all backgrounds, including Travellers and other minorities to get accessible information by going to a website or downloading an app, perhaps allowing people to check the live register online, and to provide links to YouTube videos informing them and showing them how to fill in particular forms.

There has been nothing of this sort in electoral drives south of the border, though it must be emphasised that systems and attitudes need to change drastically if the dearth of Travellers engaged in electoral politics is to be changed in any meaningful way.

If political parties are genuine and sincere in ending racism against Irish Travellers, I would suggest co-opting at least one Traveller onto each political party – not merely in a tokenistic way, but to allow full autonomy of each Traveller in their political party to veto decisions and votes and to work solely for the assembly of Travellers on promoting equality and inclusivity.

Full autonomy to deviate from decisions that are detrimental to our own community is imperative. If we are to promote Traveller political participation, we cannot be expected to endorse any party or policy that ultimately aids our own oppression.

Bernard Sweeney is a committed Mincier activist. He has recently developed and launch his own Traveller media project TraVision, a platform for discussions on all issues concerning the Traveller community. Follow him on twitter @1bernardsweeney.

Image above shows Bernard Sweeney, left, host of TraVision, with guests Martin Collins, Vincent Browne and Kathleen Lawrence, in Pavee Point, Dublin. Photo: Dara Mac Dónaill.

Roma student’s open letter on legalised discrimination against Gypsies & Travellers

By Brigitta Balogh.

Below is an open letter from Brigitta Balogh to British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Faith, with responsibility for Gypsy and Traveller equality policy Lord Bourne.

Dear Lord Bourne,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Brigitta Balogh and I am a Hungarian-born Roma woman, currently attending the Bar Professional Training Course at City University of Law, aiming to become the first Roma person to qualify as a barrister in England and Wales. My primary goal in undertaking this work is to advance Gypsy, Roma and Traveller civil rights with an informed legal background.

I have attempted to reach out to you and your office previously. However, my request for a meeting to discuss several pressing issues relating to recent High Court injunction orders have all fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, I have no option but to publicly address you via an open letter and request legal reforms.

As Minister for Faith, you are responsible for Gypsy and Traveller Equality Policy. This means that you have a duty to implement and monitor policy and make sure that those that are in place are applied fairly and equally, as well as complying with Human Rights legislation.

I believe that the communities have experienced laws, over many years, that are both directly and indirectly discriminatory. By way of recent example, the Planning Policy for Traveller Sites ​(PPTS) published in 2015 by the Department for Communities and Local Government changed the definition of Gypsy and Traveller.

Annex 1 of the PPTS sets out who is and who is not considered to be a Gypsy and Traveller for planning purposes and therefore who is, and who is not, entitled to the slightly more progressive regime of the PPTS. The change in the definition excluded Gypsies and Travellers who have had to stop travelling permanently. It has been argued that the definition is discriminatory, prejudicial, unreasonable and disproportionate, especially in relation to those who stopped travelling due to age, ill health or educational needs.

You will also know that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 placed a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites where they were needed. However, that part of the 1968 Act was repealed by the ​Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and, as a result, local authorities no longer have any legal obligation to provide sites.

Further, since the mid 1990’s, the situation has deteriorated further and councils are now obtaining High Court injunction orders to ban Gypsy and Travellers from their areas. This is a deliberate act to force our community to settle and the UK government should recognise that these orders are indirectly forcing the community to renounce its nomadic heritage and leave its traditions behind, potentially breaching Human Rights legislation.

Many government policies unfairly disadvantage Gypsy and Traveller communities and we witness firsthand uninformed MPs using their positions and influence to lobby for stricter enforcement of unauthorised sites in their areas, seemingly forgetting that many families are also their constituents.

We note that the hatred and antipathy directed towards Gypsy and Traveller families is also a potential vote-winner on occasion. For example, Douglas Ross MP, who was recently asked what he would do if he were to be Prime Minister for a day, stated: “I would like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers.”

However, Mr Ross is not the only MP who has made such comments. Back in 2017, during the House of Commons debate, I had the misfortune of listening to Philip Davis MP talking about the “high level” of criminal activity within Gypsy and Traveller communities. He cited no evidence to support this.

Also, Mark Francois MP suggested that Parliament should make deliberate acts of trespass a criminal offence, as if this would help the situation of a lack of sites and pitches. These inaccurate comments find their way into the media and fit with The Sun and other newspapers open propaganda against the communities.

These agendas are destructive and take the focus away from providing legal protection for the communities. More recently, Labour Councillor Bob Murray for Denbighshire commented that “Hitler had the right idea” in reference to “dealing with” Travellers in his constituency. The fact that this was reported on International Roma Day, a day to celebrate our Gypsy Traveller culture and heritage, did not go unnoticed.

Regarding hate speech, in my view, the consequences of allowing public servants to engage in public instances of anti-Gypsyism actively prevents the possibility of positive social change. It is imperative to tackle and eliminate these elements as well as further support initiatives such as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month, which has taken place in June every year since 2008 in the UK. This month-long series of events raises awareness and introduces community history into the school curriculum to support broader equality measures.

It is evident that the ​Equality Act 2010 has not changed perceptions of the Gypsy and Traveller population by the general public. We witness higher rates of bullying in schools, greater exclusions and now injunction orders. For these reasons, we suggest that it is your duty to propose significant and progressive legal reforms.

The UK government seems reluctant to engage in this process or change the status quo for these long overlooked, under-represented, marginalised communities who tend to live under poor socio-economic conditions, experiencing injustice in every field of life – but we hope that you will take a more positive approach.

The Welsh Government has a much more proactive approach towards Gypsies and Travellers. There, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 has placed a duty on local authorities to provide sites, where a need has been identified, a model which can surely then be replicated in other parts of the UK.

A longstanding argument led by Gypsy Traveller activists suggests that the solution to the problem of lack of site provision is to reinstate the relevant parts of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 ensuring local authorities create a network of sites. There has to be accountability measures both from the UK Government and political party leaders to ensure local councils implement policy effectively, including provision of permanent and transit pitches and emergency stopping places.

A further example of innovation is Leeds Gate’s Negotiated Stopping policy; all authorities should be using this policy as an official way of catering for roadside encampments. Individual activists and organisations have been advocating for decades on these issues but progress has been limited. This cannot continue.

Lord Bourne, as the Minister responsible for Gypsy and Traveller Equality Policy, I urge you to address these issues as a matter of urgency. What I request is that you give the issues outlined above immediate attention that will be followed by positive action – as it is long-awaited. Amongst people who are willing to support this open letter, there are many who protested against repealing the duty contained in the 1968 Act. They have been actively fighting for the community and it is time to take action.

Please do not dismiss my motion for law reform by drawing my attention to the recent consultation dealing with unauthorised development and encampments. We need positive practical remedies and what we need to discuss, above all else is how to reinstate the obligation on authorities to provide sites.

Signed:
Brigitta Balogh.

IN SUPPORT:

Members of the British Parliament/London Assembly

  • Tom Copley, London Labour Party Member of the London Assembly.
  • Andy Slaughter, Labour Party Member of Parliament.
  • Caroline Russell​, Green Party Member of the London Assembly
  • Sian Berry,​ Green Party Member of the London Assembly

Lawyers

  • Greg O’ Ceallaigh​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Stephen Clark​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Michelle Brewer, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Owen Greenhall​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Franck Magennis​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • David Jones​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Paul Clark​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Miranda Butler​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Camila Zapata Besso​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • David Joyce, Solicitor and Human Rights Commissioner at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission
  • Aurora Curtis, Staff Attorney, The Legal Aid Society, USA

Academics

  • Colin Clark​, Professor at the University of the West of Scotland
  • Dr Hazel Marsh, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies University of East Anglia
  • Alexander Faludy, Independent Researcher, Portsmouth, UK
  • Beverley Stephens, Professor at University of Wales Trinity St David

UK and European Organisations

  • European Roma Rights Centre
  • ​Friends Families and Travellers
  • Traveller Movement
  • ​ACERT
  • Travelling Ahead
  • Leeds Gate
  • Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group
  • National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Group

Brigitta Balogh is a Roma law student, currently attending the Bar Professional Training Course at City University of Law, aiming to become the first Roma person to qualify as a barrister in England and Wales. Follow her on Twitter @hellobrigitta.

The eurozone’s ‘soulless market’ and its thuggish enforcers

By Emma Clancy.

In his open letter to Europeans last month, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that he feared Europe “has become a soulless market” in the eyes of its citizens. Twenty years after the introduction of the common currency, and more than a decade after the global financial crisis, the soulless market is in trouble – again.

The eurozone has experienced a period of anaemic GDP growth over the past five years, during which a peak of 2.4 per cent growth in 2017 – the highest in a decade, but a rate that pre-crisis would have been considered to be very low – was celebrated as heralding the final end of the crisis, and christened with the hashtag #euroboom.

After a dramatic fall in growth in 2018 in which growth slumped to 0.2 per cent in the third quarter, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission have both sharply revised downwards their growth projections for the eurozone in 2019. In its February Winter Forecast, the European Commission said it expects eurozone growth to slow from 1.9 per cent in 2018 to 1.3 per cent this year and 1.6 per cent next year.

The ECB followed in March with a gloomier quarterly forecast, projecting growth to slow to 1.1 per cent in 2019 and 1.6 per cent in 2020. This announcement was followed by several ECB policymakers anonymously briefing Bloomberg that they thought the projections were still too optimistic. Apparently abandoning all pretence of hope of achieving its target of “close to 2 per cent” inflation at any point in the near future, the ECB also cut its inflation projections to 1.4 per cent for this year, 1.5 per cent in 2020 and 1.6 per cent in 2021.

In Italy, growth was negative for two consecutive quarters in the second half of 2018, meaning the country has officially fallen into its third recession in a decade. The grim surprise came from the export-led manufacturing powerhouse of the eurozone: Germany avoided the recession label by the skin of its teeth, recording negative growth of -0.2 per cent in the third quarter and zero growth in the fourth. Data released last week showed that German industrial production and manufacturing orders and fell in February, with a survey this week reporting “both total new orders and export sales are now falling at rates not seen since the global financial crisis”.

Constitutional austerity

Addressing a bankers’ convention in Frankfurt in November, ECB President Mario Draghi outlined the weak and fragile nature of the eurozone’s recovery: “Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21per cent over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10 per cent above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21 per cent.”

What can explain the brief period that saw eurozone growth reach the dizzying height of 2.4 per cent in 2017? In a word – a massive fiscal expansion. But the expansion did not take place in the eurozone; it was a result of the fiscal policies implemented in the US, Japan and China, in the latter two cases funded by their respective central banks. Such an expansion could not possibly take place in EU member states, which must stick to the absurd, arbitrary and stifling debt and deficit limits laid down as gospel in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and Fiscal Compact.

The slow growth and grinding recovery in the eurozone can be partially explained by the post-crisis austerity shock treatment applied to the periphery by the Troika, but the architecture of the common currency has acted as a brake on sustainable growth and convergence since day one. The euro has been built on an enduring effort to constitutionalise austerity, an effort that continues today despite all of the evidence demonstrating that it causes economic contraction.

‘Purely ideological and economically unsound’

The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 enshrined the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ – a set of rules members and potential members of the common currency were obliged to follow. To join the euro, states had to pledge to control inflation, and government debt and deficits, and commit to exchange rate stability and the convergence of interest rates. As the ECB was preparing to begin operating to control inflation and interest rates, Germany pushed for the adoption of an EU-wide SGP in 1997, including non-eurozone members, to enshrine the fiscal control aspects of Maastricht, and more generally to increase EU surveillance and control over member states’ national budgets.

The convergence criteria are purely ideological and economically unsound. When a eurozone member state experienced a downturn, its deficit would inevitably rise as a result of lower tax revenue and higher expenditure on social security. But when the convergence criteria kicked in, causing governments to cut spending or raise taxes, it would invariably worsen the downturn by dampening demand. Even French neoliberal Pascal Lamy, formerly the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, called the SGP “crude and medieval” when he was EU trade commissioner.

The blanket, one-size-fits-all fiscal rules in the criteria – that member states must keep public debt limited to 60 per cent of GDP and annual deficits to below 3 per cent of GDP – were proposed by Germany, based on its own national SGP structure. In 2010, Germany proposed the reform of the Pact to make it stricter and more enforceable through the adoption of the so-called ‘six-pack’ and ‘two-pack’. Despite the vast evidence by this stage that the SGP was counterproductive and unenforceable, Germany pushed for the fiscal rules to be tightened yet again in 2012 through the Fiscal Compact Treaty, which created the obligation for the convergence criteria targets to be inserted into the national law of the ratifying states.

Fiscal straitjacket

The Fiscal Compact Treaty, signed by all EU Member States with the exception of Britain, the Czech Republic and Croatia, enshrines the rule that members in excess of the limit are obliged to reduce their debt level above 60 per cent at an average of at least 5 per cent per year. The structural deficit rule – called the “balanced budget rule” – must be incorporated into the national law of signatory states under the Fiscal Compact.

Not satisfied with the Fiscal Compact being an intergovernmental treaty, the Commission proposed last year that it be permanently enshrined into EU law. The Commission wanted the Fiscal Compact’s automatic correction mechanism to be integrated into national budgetary processes so that deviations would immediately lead to a reduction in public expenditure.

On 27 November 2018, this proposal was rejected in a tied vote of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. Fortunately for the Commission, it had anticipated such a possibility and had made its proposal on a dubious legal basis that provides for a decision to be taken solely by the Council of member states, and under which the Parliament only has an ‘opinion’ – despite the fact that several EU laws on the same issues have been adopted using the normal process whereby the Parliament and Council are co-legislators.

Despite the opposition of the Parliament, the Fiscal Compact is likely to be enshrined into EU law permanently – with its automatic correction mechanism, designed to remove the power to make a political decision on spending from national governments and put it in the hands of technocrats, beyond the reach of politics.

Surveillance and enforcement

Since Maastricht, the Commission has taken every possible opportunity to impose structural reforms that will exert downward pressure on wages in the belief that this ‘flexibility’ will act to increase convergence of the eurozone’s diverse economies and absorb shocks. The eurozone elites believe (or claim to believe) that if only ‘wage rigidities’ in the member states were overcome, both unemployment and trade imbalances would disappear. If only a country’s population could be forced to work for poverty wages, there would be a job for everyone; and the resulting stagnation in domestic demand would mean prices would fall and this country’s real exchange rate, which had become misaligned and risen too high, could regain its balance.

This view underpins the repeated attacks on the rights and wages of French workers, which has intensified under President Macron, as well as underpinning the EU’s overall agenda and forcing structural reforms in the member states in order to increase productivity, competitiveness and profit. The austerity imposed by the Troika was not only designed to regain market ‘confidence’ in peripheral governments, but also to facilitate internal devaluations in member states by a form of shock therapy. Of course, this adjustment facilitates not only the reduction of trade imbalances but also a sharp increase in the amount of wealth transferred from labour to capital.

The European Semester process – a yearly cycle of policy coordination between member states and the Commission – monitors the ‘progress’ of member states in implementing structural reforms that will facilitate downward movement on wages. In spring each year, EU member states submit their plans for managing public finances, including keeping debt and deficits within the SGP limits, and their National Reform Programmes, to the Commission. These plans are then assessed by the Commission, which proposes country-specific recommendations to member states, that are discussed and adopted by the Council. Then each autumn member state governments are graciously permitted to present their draft national budgets to their respective parliaments.

The next step in the drive to constitutionalise austerity is to establish a European Monetary Fund (EMF) that would replace the existing bailout fund, the intergovernmental European Stability Mechanism (ESM). An EMF could provide emergency funding for member states in a crisis, in return for strict budgetary discipline and invasive surveillance and control.

Accompanying the drive to enshrine austerity in EU law is a relentless push by the Commission to impose ‘conditionality’ over every aspect of its relationships with member states. Just one example of this is that in the EU’s next long-term budget (the multi-annual framework) for 2021-2027, the Commission has proposed to divert €25 billion away from existing ‘cohesion’ funds towards implementing austerity measures in member states. This funding stream will be targeted towards ensuring member states implement structural reforms – such as the privatisation of public services, reduction of spending on pensions, and labour reform aimed at reducing workers’ collective bargaining power – instead of being used unconditionally for direct cohesion policy: to provide support to rural and coastal communities, and support for employment, research, education and the environment.

Winners and losers

It will come as little surprise that a system designed to promote the German model of wage suppression, low inflation and export-led growth, propped up by a currency modelled on the Deutschmark, has benefited one country more than all other members of the eurozone.

In February, a German ordoliberal think tank affiliated with the ruling Christian Democrats, the Centre for European Policy, published an empirical study of the “winners and losers” from the euro 20 years after its introduction. It found that Germany was the big winner, having benefited by €1.9 trillion from the euro between 1999 and 2017, or around €23,000 per person. The Netherlands was the only other state that gained substantial benefits from the common currency. France had lost €3.6 trillion or €56,000 per person; while Italy had lost more than any other state, at €4.3 trillion or €74,000 per person.

Germany’s massive and consistent trade surplus has meant that its biggest export to the rest of the eurozone has been stagnation. But as a result of European fiscal discipline in the wake of the recession, there is not enough internal demand in the eurozone to sustain German industry. Now that a global slowdown has taken hold, and growth is slowing in China due to US trade tariffs and a debt crisis, the dangers of this economic model are exposed. If China’s latest stimulus package fails to boost demand, the German economy will certainly enter recession.

Italy, the euro’s big loser, is there already. The Italian economy is one of just two in the OECD in which GDP has failed to return to pre-crisis levels; the other is Greece. The Italian governing coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord faced its first test of eurozone fiscal discipline last year through the European Semester process. When it presented its draft budget for 2019, including a 2.4 per cent deficit, the Commission rejected it and threatened to enact the ‘excessive deficit procedure’ under the SGP, which consists of deadlines to comply, followed by substantial fines.

Open bias

The proposed deficit did not even cross the SGP’s 3 per cent limit. But using dubious mathematics to measure the structural deficit – what the deficit would be if the economy was at full employment – described here by Thomas Fazi, the Commission argued that the Italian economy – in recession – would be at risk of overheating if a fiscal deficit of 2.4 per cent was reached.

Instead of being technocratic, the budgetary surveillance and enforcement process is overtly political. When Macron’s government announced €10 billion in additional spending in December to defuse the gilets jaunes protests, taking France’s projected deficit for 2019 up to 3.4 per cent, EU economic commissioner Pierre Moscovici gave the thumbs-up.

“The comparison with Italy is tempting but wrong,” he said. “The situations are totally different. The European Commission has been monitoring the Italian debt for several years; we have never done that for France.” This is despite the fact that it was only in 2017 that France emerged from a long period with a deficit breaching the SGP rules.

A French treasury official agreed with Moscovici: “The situations are not comparable. Contrary to Italy, we do not question European rules. We agree that having public finances in order and reducing public debt are the right thing to do.”

Thuggishness dressed up as technocracy

The Commission is not the only enforcer policing the public spending of EU member states. The ECB has played an even more important role, throughout the crisis and in the latest clash with Italy. Its role during the crisis as part of the Troika enforcing austerity shock therapy under the bailout programmes is well known; its role in manufacturing the sovereign debt crisis between 2009-2012 as a means to force governments to capitulate on their budgetary plans, less so.

Adam Tooze refers to the ‘bond market vigilantes’ behind the massive capital flight from the periphery to the core during this period, and adds: “The role of bond markets in relation to the ECB and the dominant German government was less that of a freewheeling vigilante, than of state-sanctioned paramilitaries delivering a punishment beating whilst the police looked on.”

In May last year, during the political and market crisis in Italy arising from the temporary collapse of the coalition after the effort to appoint a eurosceptic finance minister by Five Star, EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger openly hoped that the market turmoil “could be so drastic that this could be a possible signal to voters not to choose populists from left and right”.

The ECB’s new role, self-proclaimed in 2012, in the context of a mass sell-off of government bonds of a member of the eurozone – the situation that caused the sovereign debt crisis in 2010-2011 – is to support the state’s economy though purchasing the bonds though its quantitative easing (QE) programme. But instead of buying more Italian government bonds during this crisis in May last year, the ECB was buying less, and diverting its investment to German bonds instead.

In October the ECB announced it planned to change the ‘capital key’ it used in its €2.5 trillion QE programme from January this year. Though the ECB announced it would stop buying government bonds from the end of 2018, it is not the end of QE. The ECB is continuing to reinvest the maturing debt it holds – an estimated €117 billion in the first nine months of 2019 – back into eurozone government bonds. How much it spends, and where, is determined by the capital key.

The adjustment to the capital key will reduce the shares of 12 member states including Italy, Spain and Greece, while increasing the shares of 16, including Germany, France and Austria. One economist estimates that the change will result in about €28 billion less in reinvestment in Italian bonds, and €19 billion less in Spanish bonds than would have been the case if the change had not been made. Like the Commission’s bizarre calculation of the structural deficit as potentially causing runaway inflation in Italy’s clearly stagnating economy, the ECB’s capital key adjustment is another example of politicised thuggishness dressed up as ‘technocracy’.

Italy approaches the cliff-edge

This long stagnation caused by the SGP rules, Italy’s inability to recover economic activity to pre-crisis levels, double-digit unemployment and still massive youth unemployment have created the conditions for the election of the racist Lega Nord and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Following the Commission’s budgetary clash with Rome, support for Five Star has been strongly overtaken by support for the Lega. The actions of Commission and the ECB have directly contributed to the ongoing rise of the far right in Italy. It is no mystery if Italians, and Europeans, see Europe as a “soulless market”.

The threat of an economic collapse in Italy, precipitated by an inter-related banking and sovereign debt crisis, remains very real. It is exacerbated daily by the Commission and ECB. The Italian government needs to issue around €400 billion a year in public debt in order to stay afloat, which domestic banks are pushed into buying. This means Italy’s shaky bond market is highly exposed to its vulnerable banking sector, and vice versa. Banks in other EU states hold more than €425 billion euros of sovereign and private Italian debt. French banks are most exposed, holding €285 billion of this.

None of the much-touted reforms put in place in the EU after the crisis will rein in the bond market vigilantes; free movement of capital is sacrosanct. The proposal to end the ‘too-big-to-fail’ problem in Europe’s banks by structurally separating the commercial and investment activists of the banks – the so-called Bank Structural Reform – was officially withdrawn in 2017 after conservatives blocked its progress in the European Parliament and Council.

It is little wonder that there are winners and losers in the eurozone when the game is rigged and the referee is openly biased. Fears of economic collapse in Italy that peaked in May last year receded later in the year. But the country’s recession, combined with the broader global slowdown and a high likelihood of a eurozone-wide recession in the near future will push Italy closer to the cliff-edge. The deficit fetishism of the ECB and the Commission may push them off.

Emma Clancy is an economics advisor for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament, and editor of Irish Broad Left.

A shorter version of this article first appeared on the ICTU Trademark/Rosa Luxemburg Foundation blog, Brexit, Europe and the Left, on 12 April 2019.

Ecuador’s neoliberal turn: Corruption and voter fraud behind Julian Assange’s arrest

By Denis Rogatyuk.

The scenes of six Metropolitan police officers dragging Wikileaks founder Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London as he was clutching a copy of the History of the National Security State by Gore Vidal have sent shockwaves of horror and an avalanche of condemnation from all around the world. Assange had been granted asylum in the embassy since 2012.

Although Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno has been working towards expelling Assange from the embassy since at least December 2018, a chain of events in the last several months shows a clear pattern of increasing political instability, revelations of mass corruption in Moreno’s family, a further turn towards neoliberal economic reforms with the implementation of the IMF deal, and the gradual and total embrace and support for the US foreign policy in the region.

The INA Papers Scandal and growing political instability

Wikileaks’s decision to re-publish the details of Moreno’s use of offshore bank accounts in Panama, titled the INA Papers after the name of the shell corporation at the centre of the scandal (INA Investment Corporation) allegedly served as the main cause for his decision to expel the Australian journalist from the embassy. The Ecuadorian Communications Minister Andrés Michelena event went as far as claiming that the INA Papers were a conspiracy plot between Julian Assange, the former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

The INA Papers scandal has cast a long shadow on Moreno’s regime and its rhetoric of allegedly fighting against institutional corruption. Most notably, the scandal reveals a close associate of Moreno, Xavier Macias, lobbying for the contract of the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric power plant (valued at $2.8 billion) as well as the ZAMORA 3000 MW plant to be awarded Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned construction company.

The money route from the Chinese corporation passes through bank accounts in Panama belonging to INA Investment Corporation – a shell company originally founded in the tax haven Belize by Edwin Moreno Garcés, the brother of the current President. The most crucial pieces of evidence indicate that the INA Investment funds were used for the purchase of a 140 m2 apartment in the city of Alicante, Spain, and a number of luxury items for President Moreno and his family in Geneva, Switzerland, during his time as a special envoy on disability rights in the United Nations.

As the pressure mounted on Moreno, the Attorney General of Ecuador issued a statement on March 19, indicating that it was commencing an investigation into the INA Papers scandal involving President Lenin Moreno and his family. Furthermore, on March 27, the National Assembly of Ecuador approved a vote in favour of investigating Moreno’s alleged off-shore bank dealings in Panama. According to Ecuador Inmediato, 153 public service officials, along with all members of the National Assembly, were also included in the initial public hearing scheduled for April 1.

The corruption scandal comes amid a number of other prominent crises and changes undergoing both the Moreno administration and the Ecuadorian economy. The local and regional elections of March 24th, as well as the election to the Council of Citizens’ Participation and Social Control (CPCCS) on March 24, have been riddled with a series of controversies and irregularities with regards to vote counts and allegations of fraud, including the attempts to invalidate null votes, disqualify and smear the candidates endorsed by ex-President Rafael Correa, as well as a lack of transparency and legitimacy as highlighted by the report of the mission of electoral observers of the Organisation of American States. In a way, this mirrors the 2017 Honduran presidential elections, where mass voter fraud and other irregularities proved to be the key in returning of the hard-right Juan Orlando Hernandez government to power.  

The IMF deal and a turn towards the US

During the recent meeting of the Executive Board of the IMF, the financial body approved a loan package of $4.2 billion to the government of Lenin Moreno for what it called a “more dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive economy for the benefit of all Ecuadorians”. The agreement coincided with layoffs of more than 10,000 public sector workers, in addition to the ongoing policy of reduction in the public and social spending, a decrease in the level of minimum wage and the removal of secure work protections that marked the sharp neoliberal turn of the Ecuadorian government under Moreno.

The IMF deal coincided with the increasing attempts by the Ecuadorian government to proceed with the expulsion of Julian Assange from its London embassy, and his arrest is likely a sign that the Moreno regime is willing to give up any part of its sovereignty – political, diplomatic, or economic, to comply with the demands of the international finance agency.

The same pattern has been observed in his increasing level of collaboration with the Trump administration and its foreign policy in Latin America. From holding private meetings with former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, to publicly hosting US Vice President Mike Pence in the Ecuadorian presidential palace, to authorising the opening of a new ‘Security Cooperation Office‘ in place of the old US military base in Manta, Moreno’s embrace of the new Monroe doctrine has become all too apparent, just as the efforts to hand Assange over to the US authorities have grown over the last two years.

At the same time, he has gone to great lengths to undo the progress of Latin American unity and integration initiated by his predecessor and other progressive leaders in the region. On March 13, Lenin Moreno announced that Ecuador would leave the Union of South Ameircan Nations (UNASUR) international agreement originally founded in 2008 by the leaders of South American nations, most prominent among them Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Lula da Silva of Brazil. The project was inspired by the long-standing vision of Simon Bolivar who envisaged South America as a federation of various republics, and was meant to consolidate the growing economic and political integration among the increasingly progressive governments across the region, eventually emulating the current structure of the European Union.

Moreno alleged in his press release regarding the exit from UNASUR that the project has been as a result of the lack of participation of the right-leaning governments in the region, as well as the “irresponsible actions of certain leaders that replicated the worst vices of Socialism of the 21st Century”. In a manner similar to Francisco Santander and the project of Gran Colombia during the 1820s, Moreno has opted for a pro-US foreign policy and commercial relations based on free trade and liberalisation.

He has also increasingly followed the path of other right-wing leaders in the region such as Jair Bolsonaro and Mauricio Macri in officially recognising Juan Guaido as the President of Venezuela. Moreno was also one of the attendees of the founding summit of Prosur, a newly convened regional block of US-aligned neoliberal governments.

In another unusual twist, the US ambassador, Todd Chapman, was spotted visiting the headquarters of the CNE during the March 24th election day and allegedly participating as an official electoral observer in the elections. This display of interference was widely condemned on social media as illegal under the current electoral rules, which forbid foreign powers from playing any active role in the observing or interfering the electoral process.

Silencing Wikileaks

Moreno’s decision to silence Julian Assange and expel him serves a dual purpose – to gain the trust of the Trump administration, and to direct the national and international public away from his corrupt dealing and offshore bank accounts, the fraudulent elections of March 24, and his mishandling of the Ecuadorian economy.

This has also been echoed in the comments made by Rafael Correa, the former President of Ecuador who first authorised Julian Assange’s asylum back in 2012. After having his page blocked on Facebook, Correa stated that, “In his hatred, because Wikileaks published corruption of INA papers, Moreno wanted to destroy Assange’s life. He probably did it, but he has also done a huge damage to the country. Who will trust in ECUADOR again?”.

Overall, Ecuador has come to resemble the neoliberal regimes of the 1990s across the continent, with IMF-sanctioned austerity, increasingly unstable state institutions and an almost complete obedience to the US foreign policy in the region becoming the new policy standard. By contrast, the decade of political stability and the economic progress enjoyed by the Ecuadorian citizens under President Correa’s government now seems like a cherished (albeit distant) memory that his supporters, and even his detractors, now seek to recover.

Denis Rogatyuk is a Russian-Australian freelance writer, journalist and researcher. His articles, interviews and analysis have been published in a variety of media sources around the world including Jacobin, Le Vent Se Léve, Sputnik, Green Left Weekly, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Alborada and others.

The Left and the EU: Steering a course of principled resistance to neoliberalism

By Andy Storey.

Trawling through the website of the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) – the group calling for Irish exit (Irexit) from the European Union (EU) – is a strange experience. Amidst the xenophobia and often crude and puerile attacks on left-wingers, there are moments where those same left-wingers might find themselves nodding in agreement.

IFP support for Ireland’s “meaningful military neutrality”, for example, would raise few hackles on the Left.

Another reason for IFP opposition to the EU is that it, allegedly, “forbids state aid”. In fact, it does not, but it does seek to strictly limit such aid as a tool that governments can use to boost economic activity and equality. The potential in being freed from that restriction, and the other elements of neoliberal EU economic governance, is a point grasped by left-wing supporters of Brexit in the UK.

But the apparent enthusiasm for state aid sits uneasily with simultaneous IFP support for “slimming the state” and cutting taxes. They even endorse the widely discredited ‘Laffer Curve’, which claimed to show that tax reductions, counter-intuitively, boosted a state’s overall tax take, a proposition that is now considered bogus in the vast majority of cases.

The IFP does, implicitly at least, concede that the state might have a role in resolving issues like the housing crisis, but here their approach is overshadowed by their visceral hostility to immigration – they claim that unless free movement of people within the EU is ended then the demand-side pressure on housing will make the crisis intractable.

Which rather begs the question of how other EU countries seem to have dealt with their housing problems while remaining open to free migration across the EU. Vienna’s much-admired public housing model, to take just one example, has not depended for its success on keeping foreigners out of the city.

There is much more that could be said about the IFP. Its stance on climate change is confused and probably disingenuous. And its nativism is sometimes close to comic, such as the pledge to “support all efforts to strengthen the Irishness of Ireland”, whatever that might mean.

But let’s stick with economic policy for now. One of the billboards it has recently erected claims that a “normal self-governing state… can trade globally”, while the website bemoans the fact that Ireland (within the EU) “cannot make bilateral trade agreements”. You might have thought that the Tory Brexit pantomime would have given the IFP some pause for thought regarding the difficulties of maintaining (existing) and establishing (new) trade relationships while exiting the EU.

Economic consequences of exit

In reality, Ireland leaving the EU alongside the UK, as Irexiters urge, would be economically damaging to this country, as a recent study by Davies and Francois indicates. They argue convincingly that any Irexit would generate even worse economic outcomes than Brexit alone (which will be bad enough for Ireland) – while trade with the UK would be less disrupted by Ireland following the UK out the exit door, trade between Ireland and the EU (which is more important than that with the UK alone) would be damaged to a much greater extent.

Davies and Francois conclude that “Irexit in any form is likely to make a bad situation worse” on the grounds that “erecting barriers to trade with the continent would have a massive impact on Irish global economic integration”, with low-skill and low-income workers (the very people whose interests the Left should be prioritising) hardest hit.

And this is only considering trade effects. In all likelihood, Irexit would also see a downturn in foreign (especially US) investment into Ireland on the grounds that we would no longer constitute an uncomplicated bridgehead into the EU market. By way of precedent, foreign investment in the UK has already been negatively affected by Brexit.

Ireland, as many commentators have long argued, is overly dependent (to a much greater extent than is the UK) on such multinational investment but, as the cliché goes, we are where we are, and the Left cannot now afford to be blasé about this. IFP leaders might have no problem telling the workers who depend on those multinationals that their jobs can be sacrificed in order to “strengthen the Irishness of Ireland”, but it is not a task I would relish myself.

It is worth noting that the immigration restrictions the IFP wants to see implemented would also have negative economic consequences. The (partial and uneven) Irish economic recovery after the 2008 crash was, as my colleagues Sam Brazys and Aidan Regan have shown, largely due to foreign investment from, especially, US tech companies, and those companies would not have come to Ireland had they been unable to freely recruit the skilled, specialised labour they needed from elsewhere in Europe.

Those economic considerations doubtless go a long way towards explaining generally positive Irish attitudes towards the EU, as revealed by the most recent Eurobarometer survey data (collected in November 2018). The data show that 64% of Irish people hold a positive view of the EU (the EU average is 43%) and only 8% hold a negative image of it. Seventy five per cent of respondents express satisfaction with how democracy works in the EU, and 76% feel Irish interests are taken into account by the EU. Seventy per cent of those sampled in Ireland do not believe that the country’s future would be brighter outside the EU.

Distrust

But there are some important qualifications to be taken into account concerning these survey results. The first, as the survey managers themselves point out, is that the views are often ‘soft’ – for example, people’s image of the EU tends to be somewhat rather than strongly positive.

Secondly, and relatedly, these views can change pretty dramatically within a short period of time. Only 8% view the EU negatively now, but that proportion was 31% in 2012 (when the figure for those with a positive attitude was just 35%). Back in 2011, just 38% thought the EU took Irish interests into account, compared to 76% at present.

Thirdly, views of the EU may be broadly positive, but trust is a scarcer commodity – 50% proclaim trust in the EU (up from 24% in 2011) but 38% are still distrustful. Given the EU’s outrageous insistence on Ireland repaying the socialised debts of private banks, that distrust is entirely legitimate and understandable.

A summary paraphrase of what the survey respondents are saying to the EU might read as follows: “we like you, now, and we think we are better off, for now, being a member, but we don’t trust you as much as you might think”.

The relatively high level of distrust may help explain why 25% of people think Ireland’s future prospects would be better outside the EU, a sizeable constituency that could rise if circumstances changed (such as the EU being seen to insist on a post-Brexit hard border on this island) and one which is not currently represented by any major Irish political party. That is the constituency that the IFP (and its allies) is pitching to.

The argument about sizeable sections of the electorate being unrepresented by the current parties is not, of course, confined to stances towards the EU: 38% of voters were against same sex marriage in 2015, 34% were against the legalisation of women’s reproductive rights in 2018. No substantial political party speaks for the No voters on those issues.

The newly formed Aontú party (led by former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín) is clearly aiming to hoover up that socially conservative vote, and its recent launch saw its leader make a play for the anti-immigrant vote also, albeit under the dog-whistle guise of calling for a “debate” on immigration that would reflect people’s supposed “growing unease and concern” on the issue. Aontú’s position vis-à-vis the EU is not yet known.

Left’s orientation

So where should the Left go in this context? Well, obviously, not towards social conservatism: that would be wrong in principle but also in practical terms – opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and to a woman’s right to choose is a minority stance, and one that seems set for long-term secular decline in Ireland. Hostility to immigration may, sadly, not be similarly destined for the dustbin of history.

More specifically, how should the Left approach EU issues? The points made above – that Ireland leaving the EU would be economically damaging at present, and that the vast majority of people support (for now) Ireland’s continued membership of the EU – are important, but at the same time they do not invalidate the serious criticisms left-wingers are obliged to make about EU policies and practices.

Those criticisms include a neoliberal economic governance framework that is hostile to state intervention in the economy and to the pursuit of economic justice on the part of progressive governments, trade unions and others. The crushing of Syriza’s short-lived (and only ever limited) Greek defiance of that mode of governance should represent a defining moment for all those on the Left who ever harboured illusions about a ‘social’ or ‘progressive’ Europe.

Subsumed under this left-wing economic critique should be the signing by the EU of trade and investment agreements with other countries and regions that lock in the rights of corporations at the (potential or actual) expense of the public good – of Europeans and non-Europeans alike.

The growing drive towards the adoption of a coordinated and beefed-up EU military capacity should represent another red line issue for the Left.

And just as we can make no common cause with the anti-immigrant politics of the IFP and (it seems) Aontú, so also do we have to condemn the EU for cynical deals with Turkey,  Libya and elsewhere that deny many asylum seekers the ability to access Europe at all, and consign them to locations of egregious and horrifying abuse. The EU has also engaged in militarised policing actions against migrants that have turned the Mediterranean in particular into a watery grave for many thousands, even before the Union’s recent outrageous decision to abandon the vestiges of a naval rescue operation for some.

A programme for challenging neoliberalism

In practical, political terms, what all this might translate into is a willingness on the part of the Left to be very EU-critical, but not to call, as a matter of preordained principle, for withdrawal from the EU. What would such an approach look like in terms of a programme for government? Here are a few points that such a programme might contain.

  • We will not be bound by economic rules that prevent us solving crises such as those besetting the housing and health sectors – if we have to breach EU deficit, debt, state aid and other regulations in order to abolish homelessness or fix the health service then that is what we will do. This does not put us out of line with other EU states: Portugal and Spain have breached the EU Fiscal treaty provisions and not been penalised for it, while Macron in France has made tax and spending concessions to the ‘yellow vest’ protests that will likely see France also miss EU fiscal targets. What is sauce for the Iberian and French goose is sauce for the Irish gander.
  • We will not endorse trade and investment agreements that privilege investor profits over the public interest and the fight against climate change; in this, we share, for example, the current reservations of the French government, and of large swathes of European civil society, over the proposed reopening of talks on a trade agreement with the US.
  • We will not sign up to Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) that would see Ireland be pushed to raise military spending and to boost the profits of arms manufacturers – our resources will instead be devoted to lifting Irish military families out of poverty and contributing to genuine peacekeeping operations on the international stage. Again, this does not put us at odds with other EU member states – neither Malta nor Denmark has joined PESCO.
  • We will not participate in inhumane and deadly actions at the European level that prevent refugees claiming protection in Europe, in the same way that we will defend and enhance the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers in Ireland through the abolition of, in particular, the brutal and indefensible system of ‘direct provision’. Our opposition to racism and violence directed against migrants will be as clear and unambiguous on the European as it will be on the Irish stage.

I suspect that critics will respond to such positions by saying that, whatever about individual acts of resistance, the cumulative impact of this suite of measures would put us on a collision course with the EU. And I think we will have to answer honestly: it may well do. And, again in all honesty, it may generate at least the prospect of punitive action against us if we were ever in government – the ECB might, for example, threaten to cut liquidity to the Irish financial sector as a form of leverage against a real left-wing challenge (they have done so in the past to other countries, most notably Greece).

Justice and realism

So there are risks here, and a need for contingency planning (including for exit from the Eurozone) if likely EU threats are followed through on – one of Syriza’s many tragedies was its failure to prepare for what they would do if the EU powers rejected their modest proposals for reform. But this type of resistance on the part of a Left government would have a massive advantage in terms of mobilising potential public support: it would be clearly identified as a last resort that the Left, as it sought to defend the interests of people living in Ireland, had been driven to by a recalcitrant EU.

In other words, the starting position would not be a reflexive Euroscepticism (that can be left to the likes of the IFP) but, rather, a willingness to stand up to bullying and to do what it right by people here (and indeed elsewhere also) – through negotiation and constructive engagement by preference, and working closely with like-minded groups across the continent, but through principled resistance if necessary. That would provide a context in which already changeable public opinion might be more readily brought along to EU-critical positions, even while remaining cognisant of economic risks being run. Tax policy, which I have not discussed here for reasons of space, would inevitably loom large in that context also.

There is no point pretending this is not going to be a difficult balancing act, but nor can we wish away the choices we will have to make. In making those choices, we need to see the Irish-EU relationship as a dynamic and changing one, and one we ourselves can help change, not as static and fixed.

To commit to the EU come what may is to collude in the neoliberal attenuation of democracy and economic oppression of the many in Europe, to militarisation and to the violation of the human rights of migrants and others. Equally, to commit, as the IFP does, to leaving the EU come what may is to gamble recklessly with the welfare of people living in Ireland and to endorse a reactionary right-wing Euroscepticism.

The Left needs to steer a course between these opposite poles, one that is based on both justice and realism and that is willing to seek to change the terms of the debate at the same time as it is willing to adapt to changing circumstances. It will not be easy, but not to try is to cede the field to either the EU’s neoliberal autocrats or to right-wing xenophobes at home, or to some unholy combination of the two.

Andy Storey teaches political economy in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, and is on the board of the justice and human rights NGO Action from Ireland (Afri). The views contained in this article are expressed in a personal capacity.