The Troika may be gone, but Ireland’s social problems remain (Opinion, TheJournal.ie)

Opinion Piece by Dominic Hannigan TD, Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs, which appeared in TheJournal.ie on Monday 27 January.

With the instability in the eurozone receding in recent months, we have seen the emergence of an important debate at European level: how to tackle the serious social impact of the recession, writes Dominic Hannigan TD.

WE FIND OURSELVES at a defining juncture in the European Union’s history. The unprecedented economic and financial crisis of recent years has shaken the European Union and its member states to the core.

As the instability in the Union has receded, the last number of months has seen the emergence of an important debate at European level, and in individual member states, regarding the future shape of the European Union. The creation of this real economic union, which includes an annual European process for economic policy coordination and governance, presents both opportunities and challenges for national parliaments and parliamentarians.

Some commentators in Ireland have proclaimed that with the departure of the Troika we have regained full economic control of our country. This is not so. The new reality is that measures introduced to deal with the European crisis – known in eurospeak as the “Six Pack” and the “Two Pack” – mean that member states have increased the role of other member states by pooling economic sovereignty.

EU countries, and particularly euro area countries, are no longer able to formulate and conduct their economic policy in complete isolation from other EU countries. This process for enhanced budgetary surveillance, the European Semester, also provides a valuable opportunity for Oireachtas Members, for instance, to feed into Irish national budgetary decisions, as well as pan-European policy, in a more meaningful way than ever before.

Strengthening the social dimension of the union

Because of the speed of response required to deal with the economic crisis, the policies introduced to date are largely focused on fiscal and economic matters. Now that we have entered calmer waters we need to look again at the adequacy of our new tools; people want Europe to have the right economic policies to deal with the crisis, but they want Europe to tackle the social impact of the recession as well. This has been an ongoing demand from our citizens, which we hear repeatedly, not just during referenda campaigns.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, which I chair, has devoted considerable time to debate how the sustainability of the European social model can be secured for our people, particularly for groups such as our youth. We have done that not just in Dublin but also at every opportunity we have on the European stage.

So we are glad to see that the European Commission has published a proposal on strengthening the social dimension of the Economic and Monetary Union at the end of 2013. It outlined how indicators such as unemployment and youth unemployment rates, the changes in disposable income levels of households, the at-risk-of-poverty rate, and inequality might be monitored.

To discuss this proposal, my Committee hosted a series of detailed meetings involving relevant groups from within Irish society, such as the National Youth Council, the National Women’s Council, Social Justice Ireland, as well as Irish Congress of Trade Unions, IBEC, and the ESRI. We were keen to get their thoughts on what social indicators would and could be measured.

We also heard a representative of the European Commission outlining three major strands of action, namely to provide greater surveillance of employment and social developments; to secure enhanced labour mobility; and finally, to support the strengthening of social dialogue.

Economic and social progress: two sides of the same coin

My Committee has now concluded our analysis and based on our discussions we have issued a paper outlining our thoughts and suggestions on the process. We are calling for a specific focus on employment and social indicators in Economic and Monetary Union, arguing that economic and social progress are essentially two sides of the same coin. We believe that the new shared economic governance mechanisms must be capable of identifying and addressing problematic developments related to employment and social policies in EMU in good time.

To help to do that we recommend that:

  •     Clarity be provided regarding the introduction of the social indicators scoreboard;
  •     While the indicators must carry weight, levels of sanctions or supports for Members States in breach of social indicator thresholds be carefully considered;
  •     The proposed scoreboard be expanded to include figures on child and old-age poverty and the participation of women and young people in employment, and
  •     We need to strengthen the involvement of social partners at a European level.

We forwarded the contribution to President Barroso of the EU Commission, President Van Rompuy of the EU Council and President Schultz of the EU Parliament, as well as to our Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton TD, and to the appropriate Committee in each EU Member State’s national parliament.

I am of the firm belief that the Houses of the Oireachtas, and particularly its Committee system, can play a proactive and practical role in shaping policy at EU level, particularly in underpinning the credibility of moves towards genuine Economic and Monetary Union. We should do this by engaging and including Irish civil society in our debates. In doing so we can ensure that the citizen’s thoughts and concerns are kept at the heart of the development of better EU policy and laws.

Dominic Hannigan TD is Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs.