A foundation for the Green democratic recovery
The European Elections, held in tandem with local elections, proved to be a turning point for the Irish Greens. It was a real comeback at local level, particularly in Dublin, and came desperately close to electing an MEP. Green Foundation Ireland (GFI) has played a real part in this recovery.
Many green activists have come together at GFI events over the past two and a half years to engage with fresh ideas and interests and to find a common approach with other European Greens. A forum for exchanging ideas was created outside of the political party’s policy straightjackets, and GFI events became a forum for re-engaging with what it actually means to be Green. Most importantly, the cultural programme became an integral part of our summer schools, including celebrating the particular city or place where we gathered.
But while it was a modest although significant turning point for the Greens, the backlash continues against political elites both at home and across the EU. The perception is that austerity-driven cuts in public services have been imposed on those who were not responsible for the economic crisis. Thus, a return to prosperity is sought as a necessary, even though insufficient, means of returning to a positive engagement with the EU. However, the idea that such prosperity can only be achieved by a society that turns towards a sustainable future is far from being accepted, even if the Greens achieved a strong recovery at grass-roots level in Dublin. Therefore, GFI is continuing to work towards this outcome.
Ireland’s Eurosceptic protest vote
In Ireland, the protest vote against austerity was a strong vote for Sinn Fein – the nationalist party which is the political wing of the IRA. This protest can also be seen as a soft Eurosceptic vote, with a strong underlying anti-EU subtext. Europe was popular in Ireland as long as it delivered prosperity and social reform. However, the twin miseries of unemployment and emigration have now returned to Ireland. The governing parties were annihilated in the last general election, while anger towards an out-of-touch and out-of-reach European elite was palpable during the European elections.
Of all the EU institutions, anger has focused in particular on the European Central Bank, under the leadership of Jean-Claude Trichet. The ECB is not only seen as responsible for forcing Ireland to take responsibility for a Euro-wide and systemic problem which Trichet, as one of the creators of the euro, refused to face, but also as not addressing employment concerns as other central banks must do. Rather than a real and operational central bank, the English-speaking world sees the ECB as being both autocratic and failing to respond to the concerns of those who actually live in the current economy. Although Mario Draghi is regarded as having restored confidence in the euro zone virtually single-handedly, the ECB is still seen as not addressing the real economy. This will only change if the euro zone can adapt to the necessary reforms. The inept way in which the euro was constructed, as a sort of Titanic currency which was all superstructure with no proper foundation, and which crashed into the iceberg of the global financial collapse, remains a source of anxiety.
To fix this we will need more fiscal integration in the EU, which cannot happen without real democratic control, as control over how taxes are distributed is the essence of democracy.
The EP elections results demand that we do not simply oppose populism with rhetoric but must deal with the situation that has created it – unemployment and economic insecurity, even homelessness and precarious living. However, citizens feel that rather than defending their social rights, the EU undermines them, and economic counter arguments seem to fall on deaf ears. In this context, GFI has held a number of seminars and summer schools which have continued to address the European dimension and put the crisis in context.
A new medium for a new movement
In the current age of globalisation, a central feature is that the state the markets and the use of natural resources are interconnected. We cannot continue to measure our economic performance as nation states and people cannot simply blame governments. The Green European Foundation, alongside national foundations – through the journal and summers schools – is playing a vital role via an intelligent response to this in Europe.
Another approach, which the GFI is interested in piloting, involves interactive digital platforms on sustainability and global justice whereby both ideas and experiences can be shared. Many programmes and discussions focus on the concept of sustainability, but without any context. It is GFI’s intention to create a better response, using digital platforms to provide an ethical and philosophical context for green activism that can be communicated simply and persuasively. This will be allied to the practical management of sustainability in a currently unsustainable present. Digital platforms can help to bring about better penetration of mainstream culture by green ideas.
We need to move to new mediums because even the established political parties across Europe are losing members, and party volunteering is in freefall. There is a crossover between the crisis in politics and the crisis in the media and communication industries. The intertwining of media and politics is about to undergo a new twist with digitalisation of the former, which will make it easier for political movements to generate their own TV platforms. Having already seen the genesis of this among the populist right-wing media in the US and Europe, and it is obvious that the Green movement cannot ignore this trend.
Ireland is a polity that has been greatly influenced by European political thought, particularly that coming from Republican France. However, despite having been an independent state for 90 years, in many ways it remains culturally attuned to United Kingdom, perhaps because of strong linguistic, economic, historic, juridical and indeed familial ties. Thus, the rising Eurosceptic vote in the UK is very problematic for Ireland , which values its EU membership not only for its field of operation across Europe, but also for the forum it provides for cooperation with the UK on a range of issues – if not quite as equals, then certainly often as allies.
There is a shared attitude among the public to political parties in these islands where they are considered as a necessary evil rather than a repository of leadership. They are not usually seen as a repository of ideas – as is perhaps more the case across Europe – but as pragmatic decision-making and a managerial approach to day-to-day affairs. However, whereas there used to be more trust between citizens and their governments, politicians are now regarded more as inept hirelings who can be sacked for incompetence.
The landscape of foundations in the UK and Ireland
It is this lack of political ideas and a leadership vacuum that the Green Foundations are in a position to address. There are no publicly funded political foundations in Ireland or the UK. Many European political foundations emerged after the Second World War to help to rebuild democracy. They do not exist in the English-speaking world except as an adjunct to foreign aid programmes.
Political ideas have often evolved from elsewhere, for example, from the US or privately funded foundations and think-tanks. The oldest of these, the Fabian Society, which was founded to establish socialism, is 130 years old and is affiliated to the UK’s Labour Party and the Party of European Socialists. However, it remains a membership organisation which is not publicly funded. Similarly, Green foundations in the UK and Ireland are not publicly funded, are politically independent, and are usually organised as educational charities and regulated as such. They include the Green Alliance, the Forum for the Future, and the Greenhouse and Green Foundation Ireland.
Despite this, there is a rich tapestry of civil society organisations and NGOs creating what has become known as social capital. These are often single-issue or practically focused bodies, and there tend to be far fewer concerned with ideas on how society might be organised. Political foundations or think-tanks have appeared in this gap, which used to be filled by the party apparatus. In the eighties and nineties, right-wing think-tanks began to proliferate in the English-speaking world and proceeded to dominate political discourse until the recent crisis when they began to be seriously challenged.
Green ideas, currently in a deep recession, are not a luxury but rather a way of recovering a new economic and social order. The managerial political culture which exists in the EU is not sufficient to energise and engage with citizens. More democracy is vital although this could become more complex. People also need to experience European systems of governance to realise that they are not only accountable but are also accessible and intelligible. The Green Foundations and Green European Journal can play an increasingly vital role in creating a better understanding of each other’s different needs and the positive contributions they all can make, while working together on common green projects.