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Column 'It's crucial that we discuss the causes of the Brexit vote and support for political extremes'

In Europe, economic priorities still dominate social priorities. This must change, writes Dr Seán Healy.

WHILE THERE HAS been widespread concern about the consequences of the UK’s Brexit decision and its implications for Ireland, there has been far less discussion of the causes of that Brexit vote.

Yet it is crucial that its causes be addressed or we are likely to see those causes strike again. The causes of Brexit are like those that led to the election of President Trump and to the growing support for political extremes across the EU.

The issues we must address

Growing inequality, failure to engage people in shaping the decisions that impact on them and a growing perception that the EU is really run by an elite in the interests of an elite, are among the main causes that must be addressed. Economic recovery has yet to be experienced by large numbers of people in Europe.

Many remain excluded as they continue to lose out in employment, education, healthcare, poverty and related services. This is undermining the confidence many people had in the European project because they see the EU constantly giving priority to economic issues ahead of social challenges.

New study

The situation in all 28 EU countries is analysed in a new study from Social Justice Ireland entitled: “Europe: The Excluded Suffer while Europe Stagnates” published today.

This study shows that long-term unemployment is one of the most important challenges facing the EU. Almost 11 million people in the EU are long-term unemployed and 6.6 million have been unemployed for more than two years. This is a very worrying trend.

The youngest and oldest workers in the EU have been hardest hit by long-term unemployment. Young workers were most affected by long-term unemployment before and during the recession. While older workers are less likely to become unemployed than younger workers, once they become long-term unemployed they face greater difficulties in finding a new job.

This creates the potential for long-term marginalisation of these groups.

Efficient social policies make a difference

The best performing Member States in the EU in economic terms have ambitious and efficient social policies as a central part of their growth model. These countries have a total tax-take well above the EU average and provide more opportunities for every individual to participate broadly in things like education, health services and the labour market.

They are also some of the most competitive countries in the world, and include Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Inequality divides societies

Inequalities in Europe’s social situation bring risks of a breakdown in social cohesion both within and between countries. Great disparities in wealth and power divide society into rich and poor, powerful and powerless, and this weakens the bonds between people and divides society between the lucky and the left out.

Societies are now faced with profound questions for public policy based on emerging technologies, the changing nature of work, and the differential impact on various demographic groups.

Europe must be not only concerned with the goal of budgetary consolidation and the resolution of the debt crisis, but also with promoting justice, equality and social inclusion.

Economic priorities still dominate social priorities

The report concludes that unfortunately, in Europe, economic priorities still dominate social priorities. There is a perception the European technocrats are insulated from the experience of the poorer people of Europe, something that is corrosive of trust in the whole European project.

Leadership at EU level in relation to vulnerable groups will prove critical not just to the future economic and social outlook but also to the democratic future of Europe.

Report’s Recommendations

The report recommends that to address important challenges including long-term unemployment the EU should:

  • Advance proposals for a guarantee of an adequate minimum income or social floor in the EU.
  • Develop a strong European pillar of social rights which confers social rights and includes clear-cut indicators to measure and compare the social performance of member states.
  • Prioritise large-scale, investment programmes that operate in job-intensive areas which could assist growth and address social and infrastructural deficits.
  • Adopt effective labour market measures focused on supporting unemployed people, aiming to maintain and develop appropriate skills.
  • Tackle low pay by supporting the living wage concept and moving toward a basic income system.
  • Develop sustainable approaches to taxation as sustainable and inclusive growth requires approaches to raising revenue that generate enough to support vital services and to move to a social investment approach.
  • Tackle tax evasion and introduce fair taxation systems in which all sectors of society, including the corporate sector, contribute a fair share and those who can afford to do pay more.

Dr Seán Healy is the director of Social Justice Ireland.

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‘These ideas won’t wash with Irish people’: Why the alt-right has little standing in Ireland>


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