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European Anti-Poverty Network (Ireland)

In December, 1996, as the prime-ministers and presidents gathered in Dublin to consider the new draft treaty on European Union, voluntary and community organizations met to discuss and outline their vision of a more socially just and inclusive Europe. This latter conference, called The Other Europe , was an initiative of networks concerned with poverty in Ireland and Europe, the purpose of which was to ensure that the concerns of citizen's associations were heard in the construction of Europe. A number of broad points were made in the course of wide-ranging discussions. Principal of these were the following

The outlook for the development of a social Europe was difficult at the present time. Even small-scale social programmes had been blocked. At a much larger level, the process of European Economic and Monetary Union had led monetary theory to be written into the new treaty. Monetary union will be governed by a central European bank operating outside democratic control. Under such circumstances, it was difficult to see how poverty and unemployment could be tackled effectively.

The progress which had been made so far toward monetary union had, if anything, a negative effect on social development. It is possible that spending on public services had declined since the first Maastricht treaty, evidenced by the wave of public service strikes now sweeping Europe. Care work, whether that be for children, older people or people with disabilities, had been degraded.

The opportunities for ordinary people to participate in the process of European integration were limited. The negotiations took place behind closed doors and were not accessible to ordinary citizens. The process was opaque and excluding. The only way in which people could pass comment on the process was through referenda or elections which were due in some member States in the next number of years. In future, European integration should be marked by a real commitment to an open and democratic approach.

The new treaty draft, which had only just been released, had abandoned the principles of one of the founders of the European Union, Robert Schuman, who had proclaimed that the Union should unite people. Instead, the draft treaty was all about money and crime and had been stripped of its human and uniting factors, like social cohesion. Many important groups had been left out, such as the unemployed, the poor and women working in the home.

The European Union was now the world's largest trading block. For this reason, it was all the more important that the Union and its member States play a responsible role in the development of the global economy. Instead, European Union countries were trading in arms, tying aid to their own products and were associated with policies of agricultural readjustment in the developing countries which had devastating effects in the southern hemisphere and especially in Africa. Although Ireland had increased its aid budget, this was running against the European trend. The European Union focussed excessively on the development of trade relations with eastern Europe to the detriment of the greater needs in the South.

Non-governmental organizations had a key role in the future development of Europe, notably in such areas as ensuring citizen participation in decisions which affected ordinary people; in development issues; and in defining and promoting environmentally sustainable policies.

Representatives and members of voluntary and community organizations were clear that although they sought an increased competence by Europe in social matters, they wanted European institutions to operate in a more decentralized and open manner. Many had experience of bureaucratic structures, excessive administration and schemes which entangled rather than helped them.

There were some areas where an increased European Union role was not welcome. Strenuous opposition was expressed to proposals by the industry council of the European Union for the development of the European arms industry, a single market in European arms and the development of anti-ballistic missile systems. Arms producers should be no more welcome in European society than drug barons.

A key concern of representatives and members was the role of NGOs in Europe. NGOs sought an active role in participating in the key European social and political decisions. NGOs wished to complement, not replace, representative democracy. They could ensure that a range of views not currently represented at local, social partnership, national, or European level were heard, such as the views of young people, migrant workers and those outside the workforce. The European Union should also provide more support and information for NGOs and help them to carry out public education and information functions.

Women were invisible in the debate on this stage of European integration. They had not been brought into the discussion in a real way. Organizations throughout Europe concerned with women had sought a commitment to equality in all areas of life in the new treaty. There were still many barriers to the effective participation of women in modern European society, such as unequal access to the labour market, direct and indirect discrimination and lack of child care facilities. Women must be protected from violence and abuse. Consideration should be given to the appointment of a Commissioner for Equality.
This conference produced an eight page Declaration signed by all the NGOs present. It is available from the European Anti-Poverty Network (Ireland), 5 Gardiner Row, Dublin 1. Tel. 01-8745737.