Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 16 July 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Democratic Legitimacy and Accountability in the EU: Discussion (Resumed) with Foundation for European Progressive Studies
We now move on to the main item on today’s agenda. On behalf of the committee I am delighted to welcome to the meeting Mr. David Kitching, policy adviser at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, FEPS. Mr. Kitching has travelled from Brussels to be here with us and we are very grateful to him for that. FEPS is a leading Brussels-based think tank which aims to develop progressive thinking and strengthen the socialist, social democratic, labour and democratic progressive ideas in the European Union and indeed throughout Europe. It is close to the Party of European Socialists, PES, of which many of us here are members, but it is nonetheless an independent body.
Today’s meeting is another in a series on the issue of the future of the European Union. In recent months we have debated widely on how to secure democratic legitimacy and accountability and we are keen to explore with Mr. Kitching the views of the FEPS on how national parliaments can underpin democratic legitimacy in the European Union context.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing ruling to the effect that members should not comment on or make charges against a person by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continues to do so, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his evidence. The witness is directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and is asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, he should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Mr. Kitching to make his opening remarks.
Mr. David Kitching:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to come and speak here. While I represent the Foundation for European Progressive Studies I happen to be an Irish citizen too. As a result I take this meeting very seriously and hope that I can offer a perspective that might be of some use to the committee. I will begin by addressing matters of economic, budgetary and fiscal co-ordination, followed by the political angle. If it is acceptable to the committee, I will save the commentary on the situation of the United Kingdom until the discussion afterwards.
It is interesting that the committee’s invitation made direct reference to the European semester process, a cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination in existence since 2010. The objective is to ensure sound finances, foster growth and prevent macro-economic imbalances. Even this process raises issues about legitimacy and accountability in terms of the lines that can be crossed by partners in areas such as surveillance and other kinds of intervention. Indeed, many proposals for budgetary co-ordination cite the potential for central authorities to veto certain national legislation. This is often linked to the restrictive rule that national deficits should not exceed 3% of GDP. Adherence would be maintained through a mix of financial sanctions, default mechanisms and debt mutualisation as a carrot. When it comes to the use of mechanisms such as eurobonds, national governments need to decide the level of control they are willing to cede in the interests of efficiency. The economic structures of the European Union are affected by sensitive political questions regarding the most legitimate level of co-ordination for each type of legislation. As one would expect, there are radically different perspectives on where these lines should be drawn.
Decision-making on economic, budgetary and fiscal co-ordination requires the appropriate institutional mechanisms. At present, the ECB is very limited in its capacity to improve things due to its focus predominantly on monetary stability. Monetary targets focus on inflation but the ECB needs real targets, with a focus on economic and social outcomes such as tackling unemployment. A more active ECB with the ability to issue bonds to cover state debt could be a huge help in this regard. Monetary stability is vitally important but it should be accompanied by a more ambitious strategy for full employment and increase in demand. To achieve this, the ECB and the EU require significant structural and institutional changes in the long term. In particular, it is time to make the ECB politically accountable, thereby removing its independent status. The European Investment Bank is another facility whose lending scope could be widened. It has great potential to increase employment and demand through project bonds and targeted investment. Many of the proposals for a stronger political union require a larger EU budget and even the potential for the creation of a supranational finance ministry. Once again, the corresponding loss of fiscal control at national level might be a bridge too far in many member states.
In Ireland, it is necessary for us to develop a coherent perspective on our institutional preferences in the European Union. I understand the considerable effort that went into the referendum campaign on the fiscal compact treaty and the political pressure to pass it. At the time FEPS research indicated that the treaty could prove damaging in the long term because it narrowly constrains the capacity of national governments to use fiscal policy as a counter-cyclical mechanism at times of crisis. When we need to boost public investment we may not have the necessary tools in future crises.
I will turn now to political integration. Suggestions for integration initiatives abound in Brussels. The most noticeable proposal of recent years, in media terms at least, has been the introduction of a directly-elected President of the European Commission. Of course, the secrecy in which the president is chosen must end. At the moment it is more akin to a papal conclave than an electoral process. On a continent dominated by parliamentary democracy, a US style presidential election seems slightly incongruous. A more realistic option could be indirect elections through the process of the European Parliament elections. In this sense, in next year’s European Parliament elections, following a proposal from the Party of European Socialists in 2009, the main European political parties have agreed to select top candidates or their preferred option as the Commission president and they will campaign with them on the ground in the member states, in an effort to give a broader political mandate to, and link between, the European Parliament and the Commission. Other proposals from Brussels, such as transnational party lists or others, aim to deepen political integration but they require significant treaty changes for measures that are merely cosmetic.
In Brussels, I have always argued that treaty changes can be difficult but if they are unavoidable, we must make them count. Measures to enhance living standards across the EU are bound to have more legitimating outcomes than fanciful daydreams. Any suggestions proposed by FEPS would require new treaties, especially those requiring institutional transformation, such as changing deficit rules or a proposed employment and stability pact. It is also very important that the politicisation of Europe is evident at member state level.
Europe is often presented as a monolith where one is either pro or anti-EU. It is not always readily apparent that there are diverse and conflicting ambitions for EU integration. In this sense, legitimacy depends on being given a political choice and European political parties have a vital role to play in this regard. In recent years, populist voices have grown louder as the politics of grand coalition and consensus invite charges of cosy elitism. Furthermore, the tendency for governments to hide behind the EU when implementing unpopular measures has damaged the credibility of the European Union in certain member states. On the question of how far integration should go, the gap between the inherently ethical nature of public decision-making and the utilitarian nature of much of modern debate in many parts of the world has pushed a wedge between citizens and their representative institutions. Political discourse is limited. Alternative paradigms are rejected and unconventional thought is dismissed. Taken to the European level, the constraints imposed on fiscal policy by ideological positions upheld in the treaties have put into law the idea that there are no alternatives. The net effect has been suspicion of further integration.
There are very significant benefits from further integration, but only if it is on appropriate political and economic terms. Citizens need to see their public institutions as symbols of power held in common. In Europe, this means adhering to the community method, giving the appropriate role to the European Parliament and linking this to the national parliaments in a constructive relationship.
Democratic legitimacy and accountability can be enhanced in a number of ways. In economic, budgetary and fiscal matters, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies advocates a politically accountable ECB and the use of the European Investment Bank as a means of stimulating investment in the real economy with a focus on job creation. Further political integration must be linked to the idea of improving citizens' living standards. Therefore, the legislative framework of the EU needs a link to preferred social and economic outcomes.
I thank the committee for its kind invitation.
I welcome Mr. Kitching and I thank him for his presentation which is immensely stimulating and one of several we have heard in recent weeks which hopefully will be of benefit to us all as Europeans and as Irish citizens. It is important to examine what has happened in the past 50 to 60 years in an attempt to identify the positive aspects which may be of value in the future. There is a tendency to throw away the things of the past and to start from scratch as if the institutions had failed. Many institutions have failed not by virtue of the institutions themselves, but because of the people who worked in them. That is not a reference to Mr. Kitching's institution.
Mr. Kitching referred to the transnational party lists, which in my view have a distinct disadvantage for a small country such as Ireland. I do not like the list system anyway at the best of times and I have a problem with transnational party lists.
The European Parliament has gained in strength and influence and national parliaments are allegedly gaining in strength and influence in the framing of future European policy. How can those two points be reconciled? A growth in the power and influence of national parliaments will strengthen renationalisation which is not in the interests of European progress or integration or the progress of the European project. At the same time, the influence of the larger countries is strengthening considerably in the European Parliament, both in numerical strength and influence, by virtue of the gains deriving from the Lisbon treaty. Where do small countries stand in that situation? For example, Ireland will lose another MEP even though we have a small number of them. The loss of one or two MEPs would have a minimal effect in the case of a large country - even the loss of ten MEPs would be minuscule - except when it comes to votes in the Parliament. Where does this leave Ireland? We need to be cautious about setting aside what has served us well over the past 50 years.
I refer to the need for economic stimuli in the current climate. We must be prepared to recognise the sacrifices made by people in this country and also throughout Europe. All European people have suffered as a result of the economic downturn. However, what is now deemed to be Keynesian economics was found in the 1930s and 1940s to lead to inflation which was a significantly undermining feature in the development and stabilisation of economies. Is this the right time for such a policy?
This is not intended as a political point but in 1977, in the midst of an economic crisis, it was deemed appropriate to re-inflate the economy, put more money in people's pockets and generate spending in the commercial sector, in order to lift the economy. In fact, this was the wrong policy because it had the direct opposite effect; it broke the economy and set back its recovery by at least ten years. That re-inflation of the economy caused unnecessary inflation. House prices alone inflated dramatically during that period to such an extent that the Government of the day decided to remove house prices from the consumer price index.
Keynes was supposed to be the hero of the 1930s and 1940s but it was Galbraith who came forward with the suggestion that strict price controls were essential to control inflation which would swallow up any stimulus and drive an economy deeper into the red.
Ms Emer Costello:
I thank Mr. Kitching for his presentation. I have been privileged to meet him and to hear him speak on a previous occasion. I belong to the school of thought in the debate on further and deeper economic and monetary union which is firmly of the view that economic and monetary union is not possible until social union is achieved, that there must be a social pillar to support economic and monetary union. Otherwise, as Mr. Kitching said in his presentation, people's living standards will be at risk and citizens will be treated merely as consumers. The notion of achieving a truly social union is the only way to ensure a political commitment from the citizens in order to bring us towards the deeper economic and monetary union. As Mr. Kitching points out, the European Investment Bank could be a significant player in the effort to stimulate investment. Ireland is hoping to avail of the European Investment Bank to fund education projects. Even when EIB funding is available, it is still offset against our deficit and our expenditure. In order for Ireland to use EIB funding to leverage social investment, it must be regarded as a social investment rather than expenditure.
It would mean offsetting that against the deficit rather than including it in the fiscal targets and fiscal consolidation that are required under the rules and regulations laid down by the European Union. It is one very feasible way in which we could work towards achieving social union and investing in people. Social investment means trying to avoid problems before they emerge. It means investing in areas such as child care, education, health care and elder care.
Another important aspect of the social pillar of economic and monetary union is the question of automatic stabilisers. Members might be aware that the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament discussed this issue last week. The idea is that every employee would make a social contribution to a stabilisation fund. Where unemployment in a particular member state reaches a certain designated level, automatic stabilisers would kick into place to assist it in meeting its welfare bill. It is about ensuring there is true European solidarity and that all member states come to the rescue of the one experiencing major economic problems.
I am interested to hear Mr. Kitching's view on an issue that is of particular interest to me. As we discuss the European budget and seek to finalise the trilogues in areas such as the European Social Fund, I am very concerned about the whole area of macro-economic conditionality in regard to EU funding. It is something that needs to be addressed. National parliaments might have to step in and demand that funding which is targeted towards dealing with the least well-off citizens is not put in jeopardy because of the fiscal rules on consolidation. This is of particular relevance in the context of the youth guarantee fund, an issue on which I have campaigned very strongly in the European Parliament. Countries which are due money under the youth guarantee must ensure they maximise their potential and there is no macro-economic conditionality in terms of their ability to draw down funding.
Finally, I concur with what Deputy Bernard Durkan said regarding the loss of one of our seats in the European Parliament. It is a major loss to Ireland and a significant problem in the context of democratic accountability. There are 26 committees in the European Parliament and we will now have only 11 MEPs to cover them all.
I welcome Mr. Kitching to the committee and thank him for his presentation. On the issue of indirect versus direct elections to the role of Commission President, it has heretofore been a prerogative of smaller countries to assume that role. Does Mr. Kitching envisage a situation where a difficulty might arise as a consequence of one of the large blocs seeking to impose a candidate from one of the economic powerhouses? Has he identified regional as between, for example, northern versus southern blocs or eastern versus western blocs in terms of the choices to be made?
I concur with previous speakers regarding the reduction in the number of MEPs. I appreciate the need for a cap, but does Mr. Kitching believe there is a danger that a reduction in a member state's contingent of representatives in the European Parliament, particularly in the case of small countries like Ireland, might lead to a corresponding reduction in the relevance of Europe for citizens, or at least a perception thereof? On the question of democratic accountability, would Mr. Kitching say that national politicians have a tendency to blame too many of our ills on Europe in the context of various directives, regulations, policies and so on?
The Chairman indicated that Mr. Kitching is from the socialist or left side of the political spectrum, which is fine. Given that so many countries have experienced major economic problems in recent sides, regardless of their governments' political stripes, would Mr. Kitching agree that the problems we are facing, across Europe and indeed across the world, transcend the broad left-right divide?
Mr. Kitching talked about the fiscal compact and the difficulties of engaging with the electorate on it. One of the factors we have found is that people want to see some type of social dimension to Europe's reaction to the crisis. It was interesting to hear the Vice President of the Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, speaking last week about the need to extend the debate from a focus on political and economic union to include a social dimension. He mentioned that consideration is being given to introducing social indicators, on issues such as employability, long-term unemployment and child poverty, against which countries' performance would be assessed. Does Mr. Kitching have any views on how such an initiative might develop in the coming months and years?
Will he expand on how he sees the European elections being fought at a trans-European level? What types of messages does he expect will be common in all member states during the election campaign?
Mr. David Kitching:
Thank you, Deputy. There have undoubtedly been major achievements. The point I was making, however, is that one can see a certain ossification of the project in the sense that there is a level of complacency within what might be called the Brussels bubble. People there are far removed from the realities of everyday life in their member states. Their discussions are all with people who broadly agree with them, even across political divisions. It is a cosy consensus way of living. It is also very dangerous because it creates a huge chasm between the people who work within the system and those who are subject to it, namely, citizens across the European Union. Unless we address these fundamental issues of elitism and the counter-reaction of populism, the entire project is in grave danger.
It is in this context, that I am focusing on the social and economic elements. When we consider the problems of inflation that occurred in the past we can see that there was a significant change in policy direction from the 1970s onwards. The policy priorities moved away from employment and social initiatives towards the maintenance of stability. Some commentators have linked the shift to the problems which followed the Maastricht treaty, when there was a huge speculative attack on the British pound and the lira, in particular, which led to the reliance on the Deutsche mark as the basis of the euro. As a result, the German preference for the social market economy came to dominate and, with that, German fears of inflation, which are more severe than in most other countries. As a result, we have seen slower growth, less job security and higher levels of unemployment, particularly among young people and the less skilled. These are issues which endanger the overall achievements of the European project. If we have that level of dissatisfaction, there is eventually going to be a backlash.
The issue was raised of the relative strength of the European Parliament compared with national parliaments and how that might play out in the coming years. The ideal situation would be for each national parliament to have a certain degree of oversight in terms of how the legislative process is conducted. There is a trade-off, however, if we want to ensure legislation is efficient and effective in a Union of 28 member states. The principle of subsidiarity within the European legislative process has been broadly successful in that every point of legislation is decided at its most appropriate level within the overall system.
This is a matter for the European Parliament and national parliaments to decide between them. The problem of late has been the dominance of the Council, which brings with it the dominance of larger member states. I see this as a greater problem than, for example, the distribution of parliamentary seats. The loss of these seats is detrimental to small member states but the tendency among larger member states towards big power plays has been more pronounced at Council level than in the European Parliament. Part of the objective of the Parliament is to politicise the European public sphere and, ultimately, to have elected representatives as members of European political groups.
Ms Emer Costello, MEP, referred to the social pillar being linked into economic and monetary union. Some of the research the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, FEPS, has had carried out would concur with what she said, namely, that any investment by the European Investment Bank, EIB, should not be offset against austerity measures within individual member states. Such investment is meant to have a specific outcome. One of the proposals put forward was for project bonds to be issued. An example in this regard would be directing such bonds towards graduate start-up schemes. In areas of the workplace where there is high gender disparity, there are specific measures which might ameliorate matters. The youth guarantee might also be usefully linked to project bonds.
In the context of Deputy Kyne's points, a difficulty arises in the context of the overall discussion on democratic legitimacy and accountability. As a small country, Ireland faces a conundrum. It is not entirely democratically legitimate to exclude someone from the role of Commission president because he or she comes from France or another large member state. I understand the point the Deputy is making, however, particularly in the sense that the US Senate provides an extra layer of representations for smaller states in that jurisdiction. There would be a necessity to have some kind of mechanism in place to ensure that representation would not be lost and that the voices of small member states would not become lost in all the noise.
The Chairman inquired about next year's European elections. I am quite concerned with regard to the issues on which those elections will be fought. The European parties will have platforms on which they will wish to campaign. In addition, they will want to bring forward certain policy proposals in order to show how they would improve the position during the lifetime of the next European Parliament. I do not know if people will vote on those issues. Ireland is not the only country with a huge level of disaffection. There has been a major rise in the number of populist and extremist parties in countries such as Hungary and Greece. There are indications that it is also happening in France and many other countries. While many of our problems are systemic and will not be remedied overnight, it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of the elections. I would envisage a rather fragmented European Parliament following next year's elections.
I apologise for my late arrival. I misjudged the traffic and was delayed as a result. I have been able to interpret the thrust of Mr. Kitching's presentation from the questions which have been posed by members and the replies he has provided.
If the Chairman will indulge me, I wish to offer my warm congratulations to our colleague, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who has been promoted to the position of Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. The Minister of State is a person of outstanding ability and integrity. He certainly has the capacity to do the job he has been given. Commitment will not be an issue for him. I also wish to pay tribute to and thank the former Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, for her absolute commitment and dedication to this committee. I also thank her for the thoroughness of her presentations to us and the painstaking lengths she went to when providing replies to our questions. Deputy Creighton performed outstandingly well before this committee and her work with us merits commendation. We trust that what she has done will set the template for Deputy Donohoe in his new Ministry.
Does Mr. Kitching see his foundation having an involvement, either in terms of carrying out research or from the point of view of direct intervention, in dealing with the threat relating to the United Kingdom leaving the EU? If the United Kingdom leaves, it would have grave implications for the European project in the context of its various social and political objectives. Such an eventuality would also have grave implications for this country on foot of its special relationship with the United Kingdom in the context of trade, culture, etc. The United Kingdom leaving would be bad news for Ireland and the EU. It would also be bad news for the United Kingdom itself. Can FEPS produce any useful research which might inform the debate on this matter and tilt it against withdrawal? Is it in a position to have a more active involvement and how does it read the situation as it currently stands? Has the foundation carried out any initial research on the matter?
I agree with all of the points made in respect of the EIB, particularly that which states that up to now we have been concentrating on stabilisation, recovery and regaining ground that was lost. It was quite reasonable that this should have been the position for a number of years but it is vital that we should now move to the job creation and stimulus phase of the EIB's work. In that context, the youth guarantee is important. In the future, the way the EU will be evaluated by the UK, which is currently contemplating withdrawal, and by its citizenry will be how it deals with the horrific problem of unemployment across all member states. There is no greater indictment of the European project than the level of unemployment which obtains at present. This matter must be addressed and the youth guarantee and the various job initiatives are extremely important in that context.
Ms Emer Costello, MEP, made a point with regard to the social pillar and care of the elderly. I am of the view that there is tremendous potential to create employment in this sphere. It is clear that the population in this country is ageing and that there is a need to make provision for elder care. One would not need to carry out market research or any other form of analysis to discover that older people prefer to be treated, live in and access services from their own homes. We also know that they want to live in their homes either with their families or independently. Carers can play an enormous role in this regard. If steps were taken across Europe to make the job of carers more attractive and have it classified as a valued and respected profession, this would assist us in achieving a number of objectives. As a result of such a move, older people could remain in their homes, the pressure on care institutions and the cost for states would be reduced and unemployment could be tackled. I am aware of many people who are in low-paid jobs who would love to stay at home and care for their relatives. If they were allowed to do this, it would give rise to vacancies in various areas of low-paid employment. The people to whom I have spoken about this matter are not all in low-paid employment but invariably that is the case. There is massive potential for allowing people who want to care for their elderly relatives to remain at home, thereby creating vacancies in the labour market. This is the type of project the EIB could reasonably pursue or support.
Will Mr. Kitching comment on the concept of a banking union? I am aware that he considers this matter from a socialist perspective - which is not a difficulty and which gives matters an extra dimension - whereas we tend to see it from a slightly different one. Is he of the view that banking union is achievable and would it offer a panacea for many of our ills?
I thank Mr. Kitching for his presentation. We have had witnesses from think tanks previously. In so far as someone comes from a think tank, it does force us to think deeply. I am conscious that my colleague, Ms Emer Costello, MEP, is present. It should be obligatory on those of us who are members of the committee to understand the European Union structures. Perhaps those of us who have not gone to Europe should be compelled to do so as part of the membership of this committee.
We are debating very serious issues about the role of Europe, national parliaments and us as constituents. I am the first to admit that, in our attempts to examine democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU, as parliamentarians we must start to look at our own legitimacy and imagery in the eyes of the electorate right across Europe. It seems to me that we are trying to address the issue of legitimacy and accountability not only for the European Union but also for our own national parliaments. In Europe, we have the swinging pendulum electoral process. Whoever is in gets knocked out and whoever is out gets in. That does not seem to be based on sharp political analysis but on an instinctive human desire to have a better quality of life which national governments are not providing right across the board.
The question is whether we should start trying to make the European Union more legitimate in the eyes of our constituents or if we have to do it in reverse. Do we have to get our constituents right across Europe to understand the role of the national parliament in its relationship with its citizens in order to ensure support for the greater parliament, namely, the European Parliament?
That brings me to the point of the election, which might be controversial. In the past we looked at France and Germany and the United Kingdom to some degree as the big strong boys, and the perception was that everyone who was smaller in terms of population or economic strength was inferior in many ways. We must build the trust of all the economically weaker, smaller countries to attain equal status throughout Europe. The reason I say that is because sometimes people in small countries think that the big boys are always bad. In this country, the Germans are seen as the big baddies. It is easy to speak through a megaphone on a platform and shout that it is all the fault of the Germans when people conveniently forget the role that is played by the national parliament. It is not all the fault of the Germans. In fact, it is questionable how much of the fault lies with Germany.
As to how we create a link between the electorate in this country, Spain or anywhere else when it comes to an election for European parliamentarians, MEPs, I invite Mr. Kitching to elaborate further on the current thinking. We in the Labour Party will put forward Ms Costello as our candidate. She will be represented in the poll as a Labour Party candidate seeking election. There is a gap in the thinking then as to whether she behaves as an independent Irish Labour Party MEP. She does not. There is an important role that should be developed within the European context. We must be exposed more in these elections to the party affiliations, the role of parties, Commissioners and others who represent us in Europe. We need to identify faces.
UKIP is one political group that engages in Irish politics and further afield. It comes to this country and seizes the limelight. There are other oddball individuals whom I will not mention who take a particular stance. Why is there not a quid pro quo from the European political elite to engage more with the national electorate on issues such as this? We tend to cry wolf. I note that 12 EU member states have lost one seat each, so we are not alone, and that Germany has lost three seats.
I thank Deputy Byrne. We heard some questions about political legitimacy and the future involvement of the United Kingdom. At the start of his presentation Mr. Kitching signalled that he would conclude by speaking on that matter. I invite him to address the questions and to expand on his views on the future of the UK in Europe and any other concluding remarks.
Mr. David Kitching:
I will begin with the question on the UK. The United Kingdom’s relationship with continental Europe has historically been complicated. If one goes to the root of discourse over national identity, Britain has historically defined itself in opposition to continental Europe up until the past 100 years or so. That tendency still exists. One thing that worries me about the current development of the UKIP narrative on the idea of British independence is how short-sighted it is. The demographics do not quite hold up in the sense that people who adopt the UKIP angle on issues with which it concerns itself, namely, euroscepticism, immigration and certain types of welfare, tend to be more towards the older end of the scale. That indicates that younger Britons are less eurosceptic. They are less concerned about-----
Mr. David Kitching:
That is problematically true. In terms of intergenerational conflict in the UK, this seems to be the last sting of the baby boomer generation. I am not trying to be nasty, but it was the generation that benefited from the most benign economic conditions that ever existed in the UK in terms of new educational opportunities, employment and the food people were fed. It is a generation that transferred a huge amount of debt onto subsequent generations. Now there is the potential that the baby boomers will remove Britain from the whole European project, although in whatever capacity it might stay in the European Economic Area. However, it will not be so easy for the UK to get back in.
In terms of this country and how we fit into the whole narrative, I do not know if they have even thought about the effect it would have on Northern Ireland. When people look at what went on up there, one refers to PEACE funds and the cash cows that came in. I have often wondered about the comparison of the Sunningdale agreement with the Good Friday Agreement. The latter was described by the SDLP as Sunningdale for slow learners. Sunningdale was written at a time when both countries had just become members of the EEC and did not have much experience of the concept of shared sovereignty, of borders being more porous, and of sovereignty not following the Westphalian concept of the absolute border. If we take that forward to 1998 when one had two countries much more at ease with such concepts, I do not think one can decouple that from the experience of European Union membership. I wonder what effect a United Kingdom withdrawal from Europe would have on Northern Ireland even though there are strong eurosceptic elements in Northern Ireland as well. There are many other aspects of internal British politics that would be malignly affected by any such move.
The European Union itself would lose out because my experience in Brussels is that British officials who buy into the European project tend to be some of the most practically minded policy makers one meets in Europe. Brussels itself would lose out on the manner in which it conducts its business. A huge number of them would lose their jobs because one cannot work in the Commission unless one is from a state which has membership of the European Union. I hope for their own sake that British people do not choose to exit because in the long run it will damage a lot of people, not just them.
Mr. David Kitching:
Yes. We are not a campaigning organisation. Legally, we are not allowed to campaign, but we can present research which has its obvious bias; no one makes any bones about that. We cannot campaign directly in any referendum but we have conducted research on the prospect of remaining or leaving, and how it will affect matters in Britain. It is targeted predominantly at a British audience.
Regarding Deputy Eric Byrne's comments, legitimacy is not only an issue at European level. There is a problem of malaise and disillusion with institutions at every level from local democracy to any type of international institution. Part of me wonders if the sense of a political narrative is gone from politics. People describe dysfunction in terms that are misleadingly ethical. A harsh welfare cut is described as a hard choice. A tax evader is an innovator. The way in which language is coloured and the way political discourse has been reduced to spin and a game of public relations is hugely damaging to politics.
I wish to quote from the late Tony Judt's final book. In a highly critical piece on political leadership since the 1990s, he stated: "Convinced there is little they can do, they do little." There is a feeling of impotence and the idea that politics has been superseded by unaccountable elements, whether that be from financial institutions or, even at European level, the technocratic image of the European Commission and other agencies. All the members have mandates directly from their constituents but if people believe that is superseded by something that is unaccountable - a mysterious market or a technocratic official - it will damage it. That is not just a question for people in Brussels; it is a question for every capital across the world.
On the big strong boys, so to speak, and putting trust in weaker countries, there are mutual interests among smaller states when it comes to certain institutional matters but these have often been superseded by short-term interest. The smaller triple A countries will go along with the preferences of the larger countries.
The Deputy referred to personalisation and people needing to see the faces of Commissioners rather than those of UKIP members. It always helps to be able to put a face to the people who make the decisions that affect their lives. The point I was trying to make when I discussed the problems of elitism in certain quarters in Brussels, and this is not universal, is that it appears there has been a level of disengagement. That might be due partly to the fact that in media terms there has not been the evolution of a sufficient European public sphere in the sense that comments can sometimes be made in Brussels and aside from in one's own member state, they will not go back to other people. Someone from the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament elected from a list in Austria can say something and no one in Ireland will hear about it, unless it is specifically to do with Ireland or is controversial at a wider level.
In terms of those type of links between national parliaments and the European Parliament, one of the conundrums is that while people are directly answerable to the local electorate, which is positive in terms of democratic legitimacy, there is little incentive to talk about Europe. When any member is interviewed by journalists as they go about their business here, it will not always be relevant to their overall prospect to talk about Europe. That is understandable but I do not know how to change it.
Very little coverage is given to this committee. We could be here every hour of the day, every day of the week but, unfortunately, very rarely is anything reported, unless it is something controversial. However, that is an issue for us.
I would point out that one of the previous witnesses, a well-known Irish economist, suggested that proportional representation was the problem and that Irish politicians could never complete the project of studying the democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU because our interests were always elsewhere.
Mr. David Kitching:
Okay. It is not a panacea. As we have seen already today, we face many problems but in terms of having an economic and monetary union, we talk about social union being a key pillar of all of that. The idea that banks can supersede or operate outside a system of regulation is hugely problematic. A banking union alone will not deal with everything but we would like to see a situation where the instruments I suggested earlier such as the European Investment Bank could also guarantee a certain amount of lending, even from the private banks, for specific categories of investment - youth unemployment or training schemes, graduate start-ups and so on.
However, it is not something that will sort out all our problems. There are many institutional problems throughout the EU.
Mr. David Kitching:
I would hope that would be the eventual outcome, but even that would not be sufficient to satisfy many of the measures that our research has proposed.
As regards elder care, the demographics in Europe indicate that there will be significant opportunities for employment for carers in the first place. I agree that much could be done, viewing this as a source of employment. We also need to think of the social rights of the elderly themselves. It is a better outcome to be able to stay in one's home and that is usually people's preference anyway.
As regards what is the best level at which to administer that, or what is the best source of funding, that is another matter. Of course, it needs to be administered at local level. Ms Costello, MEP, worked previously on the EU fund for the most deprived.
Ms Emer Costello:
Member states will have a certain degree of flexibility with the EU fund for the most deprived to determine what type of poverty they are specifically targeting, be it homelessness, child poverty or food deprivation. Member states will be able to determine their own priorities in those areas, so centres that provide food to very deprived older people could be considered by member states.