I never learnt anything about Europe in school and I have to say I wasn’t particularly interested in finding out anything for myself. Like most of my peers, Europe to me is a sort of ‘castle in the clouds’ type concept, people tell me its there but I’ve never been entirely sure how its impacted on my life. That all changed for me recently.
In February I was invited to take part in a delegation brought to Europe by Women for Election and the European Commission, needless to say I got a somewhat rude awakening, in the nicest possible manner.
It’s been 41, (seriously!), years since Ireland entered the European Union, and in 1979 the first European elections were held in Ireland, that’s over 30 years of active participation in Europe, and yet I have never heard any of my Irish friends describe themselves as ‘European’. I would go further to suggest that some of those are actually anti-European, believing them to be faceless bureaucrats who have no understanding of Ireland and the Irish people and who only swoop in to essentially meddle from time-to-time. This sentiment was at its strongest during the debate around the Lisbon treaty.
In reality though I would hazard that most of my pals and indeed peers, have no interest in Europe and see it as having no impact on their lives, other than the Euro and perhaps inter-railing. I would imagine it’s this lack of ‘association’ that leads to the low voter turnout in Ireland and a decidedly dis-interested Irish public. I must admit to falling into this particular category. Despite my own interest in politics, Europe has always seemed that little bit vague to me, a little too far removed and a little too complex, and my interest has mainly been in local and national political systems.
Our visit to the commission was hugely informative, and more importantly for me, transformative. For the first time I began to see the correlation between what happens to me on the ground as an Irish citizen, and the powerhouse that is Europe.
There is a huge, HUGE, amount of things that Europe has done, is doing and will likely to continue to do well into the future as it grows and strengthens. I do not claim to be an expert and I simply couldn’t list all of the programmes but I will outline some of the activities they’ve taken to date, particularly the ones that stuck with me as having a genuine impact on my life, that I have simply never associated with Europe before.
In 1973 the European Union was instrumental in the lifting of what was known as the Marriage Bar. The Marriage bar meant that any woman who worked in the Public Service must give up her job on getting married.
The introduction of the Euro currency in 2004 gave Ireland access to 500 million new customers, the entire population of Europe.
Before 1974 it was common to pay men and women differently for the same roles. The Irish Government brought in legislation called the anti-discrimination pay act in order to comply with EU legislation.
Europe has funded, and part funded, a huge amount of our infrastructure from motorways to Irish Rail Tracks used by the Dart, and the Luas, and some of our harbours. They have also heavily funded a number of our tourist amenities including Cliffs of Moher.
The introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the 1960’s gave Irish farmers access to schemes that protect jobs, provide subsidies and control the markets, as well as introducing best practices and environmental measures.
Europe’s policies of best practice have allowed for Irish women to now have one of the longest maternity packages in Ireland at 26 weeks paid and further unpaid leave available.
In many ways these have always been just things that exist for me. I always expected to continue working after I got married, I use the motorway whenever I need to get somewhere fast and I expect to have decent public transport available to me. I expect that farmers are conscious of native wildlife and I expect that when I start a family the state should help me care for our new citizen. While in many of these cases there were growing national movements spurring them along, particularly towards women’s issues, its also fair to say that membership of Europe has impacted greatly on our national agenda over the last 40 years.
But Europe is a two-way street: its not all about taking. Europe is a Confederation, a Union of individual political units, and in the 70’s Ireland benefitted hugely, mainly because we were the runt of the litter. The idea of Europe is to capitalize on the strength of the stronger countries and use this to empower the weaker countries. We were lucky enough to join in the first enlargement making us one of 9 countries involved. We benefitted immediately across a huge array of spectrums: economics, education, equality, infrastructure. In fact looking at any aspect of Irish life today it would be hard to find a facet of it that hasn’t been affected by the EU in some way or another, but now there’s a problem.
By EU standards, we are now rich. Sure we’re in a recession and experiencing a state of austerity, but compared to some of our newest members, we are veritably rolling in it. And what we might lack as individuals with cash in our pockets, we have a country that can be accessed easily with amazing infrastructure, great public transport systems, access to an education system envied by other countries, human rights legislation that is so enforced we take it for granted, and in relation to the gender equality gap, we’re a whole lot better off than many countries, and Europe has by no means given up on the issue, in fact it’s fairly close to the top of the agenda.
So what surprised me the most about our trip last month? Well to be honest with you, we did. There were a number of candidates running in both the European and local elections traveling with us. As we met with this huge amount of people they all offered us the chance to ask questions. As we were hearing more and more from people who were all explaining to us about the work they were doing for us, and other women and citizens across Europe, all the questions from my delegation was about how we could get more from the EU.
There were references to grants, and programmes, which had ended and questions about what would be coming in their places. There were questions about how we could access more funding and in particular references to making sure any money allocated got spent, with no reference to how it would be spent. At no point did I find, were any of the questions in relation to how we might go about helping Europe; increasing participation, ideas for increasing voter turnout, how we could perhaps engage newer member states and help them benefit from our learning: It was mainly about what we could get out of ‘them’.
I used the analogy when I came home of a teenager who many years ago decided they wanted to go to college. Their parents, wanting what was best for their children agreed that with some scrimping and saving they could put said child through college. As the undergrad was completed the teenager, now young adult decided post graduate education was the way forward, and Mammy and Daddy, despite their own financial concerns, dutifully committed to supporting this activity also. After the Masters came the PhD, again with the full support of the bank of Mammy and Daddy. And now a younger sibling comes along, and decides she too would like to go to college, so again Mammy and Daddy do the math’s and work out the finances at which point the first child lands home and asks why their money has ‘suddenly’ got cut off.
Europe has done everything it can to ‘teach us to fish’ and yet we still seem to be demanding that they give us more fish. We are the very people who would give out if we were in any way encroached upon by its powers, and yet every time something goes wrong, we go running to Europe looking for Mammy Europe to fix it. I think its time perhaps we re-examined the nature of our relationship with our Union, and saw that we’re not stuck in traffic, we are in fact, traffic.