"Say yes to the world's most successful peace building project"
I think that NICVA is probably the only organisation like ours to publically nail our colours to the mast on this issue. And with the tone and substance of the debate so far it’s not hard to see why. The debate has been so spun and so toxic that it felt like any kind of respectful conversation was impossible. All the figures have been abused and misinterpreted and public debate has come down to who can make the most outlandish claim.
In all the mix around figures the one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that the UK is a net contributor to the EU and NI is a net beneficiary. And I think that’s exactly how it should be. Wealthier countries should contribute more towards the pot to allow less wealthy neighbours to improve their infrastructure and create employment. I believe that’s right and desirable because I want to see progressive economic policy, redistribution of wealth and I want to see equality. I believe in it for the market, for corporations, for individual countries, for the EU and beyond the EU. Because equality delivers better outcomes for everyone.
Solidarity is key to this belief. It’s a recognition of our interdependence with others that doesn’t stop at the port in Larne, the Euro tunnel or at Dublin airport.
Solidarity is key because the EU had it with us. The European Union is perhaps the most successful peace building programme in the world. It is inconceivable to us now that places like France and Germany would be at war with each other. Yet all month we have been reflecting on the horrors of what European neighbours did to each other 100 years ago. There are people who are still alive today who remember the last time our continent tore itself apart and the global ramifications of that war. That’s how close it was. An historical heartbeat away.
When the time came for us to try an end our own historical conflict the EU had our back. Lead by Jacques Delors they saw a chance to help end a conflict in Europe; and they took it. Yes they brought money. But they also brought solidarity, recognition of what needed to be done and an internationalisation of the peace process that was worth so much more. And they did understand what had to be done.
The first, and in my opinion most effective, round of peace funding was not primary about the market. It was about underpinning civic leadership, understanding that peace only works when women and young people are involved, recognising that people most affected by the conflict needed concentrated, special interventions and that the impending rounds of prisoner releases would only work if the ex-prisoners had skills, communities and a role in the process. It was the real stuff. The hard stuff that everyone else dismissed as soft outcomes.
At its peak EU funding from Peace and Structural Funds was around 15% of the income of the VCSE sector. Now it’s about 3%. But what an important 3% it is. For example the £240m European Social Fund provides a concentrated and dedicated resource to help get those furthest from the labour market into work. We are talking about young people not in education or training who have been utterly failed by the system, women who have been out of work for a long time and want to return, people who have no basic skills despite 15 years of formal education and people with disabilities.
There is nothing the leave campaign can say to me that can convince me that these people will be a priority in a budget solely controlled by the Conservative Party. I’ve seen welfare reform up close and personal and believe me – they aren’t on the agenda. But the social solidarity of the EU builds an agenda around them and that’s something we must protect.
But I have to admit that any notion of social solidarity across the EU is tested to breaking point by what happened to Greece and the Republic of Ireland. It was draconian punishment and macho muscle flexing at its worst. If there is anything that could get me to cross to the other side of the argument on this issue it’s what happened to those member states. And yet even Yannis Varoufakis, who openly berates the EU as in a ‘disgraceful state’ believes that BREXIT offers ‘the worst of both worlds ’ He argues for remain and articulates a compelling vision of a new, democratised, social EU. In a choice between the vision and sense of what’s possible offered by Nigel Farage or by Yannis Varoufakis – I’m team Yannis every time.
I want the EU and Northern Ireland to be open, and generous and equal and interconnected with people way beyond our land borders.
That’s the vision of a social Europe that compels me to support remain.
Not the self-interested, mean spirited, market driven, corporate vision offered by leave. So for old fashioned but vital reasons of social solidarity - I’m in. And I think you should be to.
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