Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Post-European Council: Statements
At one level, Ursula von der Leyen's commitment to a new green deal and addressing climate change is positive because the climate emergency is a terrifying reality that is hurtling at humanity at a ferocious pace and threatening our existence and that of future generations. Insofar as the popular movement, in particular of young people and environmentalists, has forced this issue, through people power, strikes, protest and direct actions, to the top of the political agenda to such an extent that Ursula von der Leyen feels the need to state it is her key priority, that is all very positive. I contend that at a European-wide level and, similarly, in the rhetorical commitments of this Government, there is a stark contrast between verbal commitment and a capacity or even willingness to deliver on the sort of radical climate measures that are necessary to address the climate emergency. At a European-wide level, when one looks at the fine print of Ursula von der Leyen's paper, I believe Europe will be prevented from taking the radical action necessary because it hopes to do so while upholding key pillars of the economic philosophy that is hard-wired into the European treaties, in particular in the form of state aid rules and the commitment to market mechanisms. Every policy objective is rammed through the requirement that it be delivered through a competitive market and through preventing state aid to particular industries. That means, in effect, that nothing will happen because Europe is committed to a privatisation agenda as a result of those state aid rules, perhaps not consciously but certainly in effect. Public transport is the most obvious example of that. If one pursues the privatisation of public transport, as the Government is doing here and as is being done right across Europe, and state aid rules preclude a renationalisation of the public transport system and transport has to operate on a for-profit basis, how does one deliver a public transport system that will be attractive enough for large numbers of people to move away from the private car to using public transport? The answer is that it cannot be done.
Ursula von der Leyen referred to carbon pricing. What is the effect of carbon pricing? One effect is that the cost of bus fares and fares for other forms of public transport will increase rather than decrease. That is what has happened consistently in this country. Despite privatisation and all the talk that it would deliver greater efficiency and competition, it does not deliver that at all. Fares continue to go up and private providers have no interest in providing public transport on routes on which they cannot make a lot of money. As a result, public service obligation routes are cut. One can even see that in the BusConnects plan under which public service obligation routes are being threatened in favour of high frequency and highly profitable commuter routes. Less profitable routes, for example, those used predominately by elderly people with a bus pass, are the ones that come under threat. The way to address that is by means of heavier levels of subsidisation, in other words, distorting the market, but we are prevented from distorting the market because of the legal rules of the European Union that say we cannot do that.
Afforestation in this country is another example. We are in the bizarre position that the State company set up with the specific objective of increasing afforestation is effectively precluded from afforestation because of state aid rules. Coillte has therefore delivered a dismal result in terms of afforestation levels, which are falling. They have fallen in the time I have been in the Dáil from approximately 6,000 ha a year when I first came into the Dáil to approximately 3,000 ha now. Notwithstanding all sorts of interesting targets that are never met, the actual delivery does not happen. Similarly, that prevents the sort of subsidies that would be necessary for small farmers because it would distort the market. What we end up with is companies like Coillte becoming much more commercial and focused on commercial forestry crops that are not very good for the environment. Increasingly, the company is even cutting down forests to make way for wind farms or other such developments, thereby departing completely from its core objective of planting trees and stewarding the national forest estate.
Those are just some examples. The necessary dramatic shifts, including on retrofitting and the insulation of homes, and the State intervention in the economy that is necessary if these dramatic shifts are to be made will simply not happen because the neo-liberal rules of the European market prevent them.
The other important point I would make in this regard is that if we are to have the sort of radical climate action that is necessary, we need to bring the people with us. For many who are suffering from poverty, particularly fuel poverty, or who were at the wrong end of the growing level of income inequality in this country and the rest of Europe, action on the climate is increasingly looking like a threat that will make them poorer rather than make their lives better. The carbon tax is obviously a good example of that. The poorest people are likely to be hardest hit, which is hardly endearing the climate agenda to people who are attacked in that way.
This flows from another critical fact about the European Union, or Europe and western capitalism more generally. In this regard, consider the comments of the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, on the wider European agenda preventing the horrors of the 1930s, 1940s and so on. Hello? The far right is on the rise everywhere in Europe. Notwithstanding that the EU is supposed to act as a buffer, the opposite is happening. The far right is on the rise in Austria, Germany, France and all across Europe. Why? European leaders had better start asking themselves this. When one saw some of the nasty elements gathered outside the Dáil last Saturday – far-right elements actively and consciously seeing themselves as linked to the far right across Europe – it led to the scary thought that this stuff is on the way back. Why is it happening all across Europe? The answer, of course, is that inequality is growing massively. Wage share – the share that working people take out of national income – has fallen dramatically all across Europe for the past 30 years. This is worst in Ireland. Ireland has seen the biggest fall. In the 1970s, labour, or workers, took 60% of national income. This is now down to 40%. The rest, a much higher proportion, is going towards profits and the super-wealthy. That pattern is reflected all across the European Union and the western world.
Let me give another example of this sort of thing. Just look at what is happening on the streets of France because of pensions being attacked. We are wealthier than we have ever been in the western world. One would think that would yield a dividend for people so they might enjoy their old age a bit more and have to work a little less than they once had to. What is actually happening is that people's pension rights are being attacked. They are being attacked most in Ireland. Everywhere they are under attack. President Macron is attacking them in France, which is bringing millions of people out on the streets. He wants to move the pension age from 62 to 64. Here we are planning to move the pension age to 68. That hardly endears people to the European vision or the necessity of climate action. Unless these issues are addressed, dark clouds will loom environmentally, socially and politically on the European horizon.