Centre-left parties are currently brandishing ‘competence’ and respect for experience in order to gain public trust and boost their popularity. In fact, the label is now so commonly used across national contexts, it risks becoming meaningless, and likewise exacerbating public distrust of politics. This strategy also obscures a more important reality –populist, far right leaders are still winning the rhetorical war, successfully pushing ideas and theories (e.g. QAnon) that may be dangerous, but also unify diverse groups within and across borders.
One of their most effective (ironically) cross-national tactics, especially in the UK and the US, has been to politicise international trade, blaming it for ills that reflect more accurately domestic policy decisions. At the same time, political opponents have failed to articulate convincing arguments for how trade can generate the kinds of opportunities that will both reduce inequality and generate better working conditions. There may be a hint of Schadenfreude, combined with horror and dismay, at all of Boris Johnson’s travails, but he still succeeded in making Brexit a reality.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, has indicated that the EU will assert itself against dismantlement of rights legislation and defiance of international treaties. In her State of the Union address, she declared that she wanted the EU “To emerge stronger by creating opportunities for the world of tomorrow and not just building contingencies for the world of yesterday.” But her speech still relied on projecting a ‘caring competence’. This approach lacks the visceral appeal of Trump’s rhetoric and, for many, evidence EU or national institutions and the ‘political establishment’ will work for them. As Bob Dylan sings in ‘Political World’, ‘We live in a political world. The one we can see and feel. But there's no one to check. It's all a stacked deck. We all know for sure that it's real.’
For Ireland, one of the most open economies in the world, demonstrating the relation between trade and better jobs and quality of life is critical to its economic future. Devising a more effective counter to protectionism, especially after Brexit, is an existential issue for the country.
On a European policy level, this should mean supporting greater attention to the European Social Pillar, to the point of institutionalising goals that have until now remained the providence of national policy. The EU cannot substitute jobs, especially short-term job schemes like the Kurzarbeit (short-time work) schemes, for alleviating poverty and generating greater economic security. The Irish government has questioned the financial capacity to implement the 20 key principles of the Social Pillar, and some of the ambiguity and division of labour. But the Social Pillar represents the issues that concern most European citizens, including critics of the EU, from job opportunities to access to public services to available support for older people. Advancing this agenda is significant politically and materially, especially at such a significant juncture.
Moreover, if the Irish government wants to advance a progressive Europe as a counter to nativism and protectionism, then policymakers should question if ratifying trade agreements like the one with Mercosur countries, especially now, really shows respect for the values and objectives von der Leyen stressed. Is agreeing to beef and food imports from South America, considering the potential environmental impact, the challenge to small farmers, and the human rights records of current leaders, a logical method for building greater public understanding of what the EU offers?
On a domestic level, Ireland should continue to try to overcome segregation in the labour market and industry between SMEs and multinationals. The government can support SMEs through investment in higher education, R&D, and upskilling, especially to be able to compete with larger companies for export and domestic contracts. However, policymakers have also to become more attuned to the social dimension. A recent TASC report analysing how the top 10% income view inequality in four European countries – the UK, Sweden, Spain, and Ireland – found that it was the Irish who expressed the most financial insecurity, despite earning the most. If they feel anxiety, then imagine, especially now, what the other 90% is thinking.
The civil service, hi-tech, and some professions offer trajectories to social mobility in Ireland, if not economic security. The government has to examine what should be done to expand these trajectories, so that inter- and intra-generational social mobility remains possible. Among the four countries, Ireland experienced the most condensed economic transformation, moving from agriculture to services as dominant sectors, or without a period where manufacturing contributed significantly to growth. Promoting the manufacturing sector, as the American and British governments are doing (albeit with limited or no success), to generate new jobs and increase competitiveness, is not really possible.
Instead, Ireland should be considering more specific ways education and work can connect both with technological innovation and social solidarity. Though ‘meritocracy’ as a political concept and framework for policy because it excuses inequality based on alleged individual talent, education and the labour market still provide the most accessible avenues for aspiring to, and achieving, better lives. Ursula von der Leyen has committed to strengthening the EU’s public health agencies in order to share resources and develop a unified response to the next crisis. Ireland should be pushing as well for a European vision of how investment in education and worker rights, especially in those regions that have not been served well by trade, lead to better life chances within the single market. In other words, rather than blaming trade for local problems, Ireland will help make the case that local problems have to be solved through international political and economic cooperation.
Dr. Shana Cohen
Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.
She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.
She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher. Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.
Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.
Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.