Giving Ireland - and Europe - some backbone

James Wickham14/06/2016

James Wickham: A progressive Europe requires putting the state back in. And ‘the state’ means both the national member states and the European Union itself. What follows is a written-out version of my invited intervention at a recent conference in Athens organised by Syriza and other progressive organisations.

In Ireland in the run up to the last general election most voters appeared to prioritise improved state services rather than taxation cuts. Indeed several political parties explicitly called for a state-funded National Health Service. There were calls for a state-funded national housing programme. There were call for more Garda resources especially in rural area; TASC called for a national state infrastructure investment programme.

In many ways this looked like a return to the European social democratic policies of the 1950s. There’s nothing wrong with seeking inspiration from the past, but all these policies involve two words that need more discussion – ‘state’ and ‘national’

One major target of the neo-liberal offensive has been the state – the objective has been to roll back the state. This attack on the state is one of the features of neoliberalism that makes it different from older conservative ideologies. Historically European conservatives wanted strong states, now modern conservatives want weak states.

Part of the reason for this is the transformation of the state in the 20th century. At the start of the century the European state was a warfare state. Think of all those war memorials in countries like Britain or France which commemorate those who died for their country – ‘Mort pour la patrie’. In those days involvement with the state for Europeans (or at least for European men) meant joining the national army. Now for European men and for European women involvement with the state means above all involvement with the welfare state, from education to health to housing to unemployment benefits….

This welfare state is in many ways the backbone of the society. You could say that without the state people would be only consumers in a market, but even national markets are constituted by national states. Nonetheless, in the free market people are consumers, and what we get depends simply on how much money we have. In the welfare state by contrast we have rights. And these social rights connect to another somewhat older role of the state, the way in which the state creates the public sphere or the public space in which once again access does not depend entirely on market power.

Yet who is this ‘we’? At its simplest it’s members of the nation – national citizens (though we should notice that most European states give social rights not just to citizens but also to long-established residents). So the state is linked to the nation. What nations ‘are’ is notoriously difficult and contested. Political sociologists have often differentiated between nations where membership is based on ethnicity (‘race’) and nations based on birthplace and even long-term immigration. Yet it’s never completely straightforward. In Ireland you are (sometimes) allowed to be Irish if your parents came from Nigeria (or even England), but at the same time the Irish state now claims the Irish ‘diaspora’ which is essentially a term based on ethnicity. Whichever way you cut it, the point is that the nation is a community bigger than the individual, bigger than the family. It is now the key basis for social solidarity. When TASC calls for greater equality in ‘society’, TASC means equality within Irish society – and in a further complication, this actually means equality within the state of the Republic of Ireland….So while we usually talk about the ‘nation-state’, it might be more realistic to talk of the ‘state-nation’.

If the contemporary European nation-state (or state-nation) is the basis through which people experience social solidarity, there are of course also more negative experiences of the state. Especially but not only in Southern Europe, the state is also seen as serving its employees rather than the public, it is often both large and ineffective, sometimes described as the ‘heavy state’. From the 1970s onwards in Northern Europe the left as well as the right have often seen the state as unfeeling and above all as unresponsive, as dominating rather than supporting. So when we try to reinstate some of the achievements of the 20th century social democratic state (national health service, national housing programmes….) we cannot pretend that criticisms were just fabrications by the right wing.

If the European nation state is even partly also a welfare state, then a progressive European Union cannot be seen as undermining it. Yet in many way this is what is happening. Rather than a mutual European co-ordination of national state systems of education, health, pensions etc., we are beginning to see the emergence of European markets for education, health, pensions, etc., all promoted by the EU. And in fact ‘social rights’ are simply ignored in practice. Article 34 of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights asserts the right ‘to social and housing assistance’, but as we know the various ‘European’ bail-out programmes took no cognisance even of their immediate consequences in terms of social assistance, housing etc.

Nonetheless, we do have European level employment rights, we do have bits and pieces of European health policies (e.g. the European Health Insurance Card that you take with you when you travel). Instead of attacking national achievements in the name of the market, the Union needs to start connecting them up, protecting and consolidating social rights at the European level. Another Europe is possible…it just needs a little more backbone.

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 



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