CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: Continentally Challenged (Report No. 5)

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Continentally Challenged

Social Modelling

The insistence by the former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that there is 'no such thing as society', but only 'individuals and their families' profoundly encapsulated her Anglo-American antipathy to the European social model. It was essentially to deny the legitimacy of every European social theorist since Durkheim. (It was even to deny the fundamental conclusion of de Tocqueville that democracy in America rested on its civic associations).

A senior European Commission official put it in a nutshell. The period since the republic and the UK had joined the EU in 1973, he said, could be characterised as 'invigoration' for the former as against 'introspection' within the latter. Nowhere has this been more evident than in relation to the European social agenda. While the republic has become a model of social partnership and rapid consensual growth in the past decade, Britain has been marked by a widening gulf of inequality against a backdrop (despite recent improvements) of sluggish growth. Thus, when compared with average growth in gross domestic product per head across the EU during 1975-92, the UK economy slipped back by 2.6 per cent, whereas the republic stormed ahead by 25.8 per cent.[1]

Meanwhile, the British political class has become increasingly shrill about rebutting what Mrs Thatcher saw as 'backDelors socialism' and 'a diet of Brussels'. This though the volume of the denunciations of the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty is utterly disproportionate to the puny measures which have stemmed from it. A multinational economist said his company had had to set up a works council, but no more - it was, he said airily, "trouble about nothing or about very little".[2]

From an all-Irish perspective, there is some irony here. Around the time of joining, there was some speculation that membership would, as a deus ex machina, have a modernising effect on the politics of Northern Ireland, on the assumption that it represented an 'outmoded' quarrel. In the 90s world of proliferating ethno-nationalist conflicts, such an assumption now seems quaint. In retrospect inevitably, as Hainsworth writes of the political impact of membership on Northern Ireland, "the European Community has functioned as a new arena to rehearse traditional disputes".[3]

Rather, and unanticipatedly, it is the social backwardness of the republic of 1973 that is unrecognisable today And undoubtedly EU membership has been a powerful solvent of traditional attitudes, based as they were on Catholic and nationalist particularism. Just to take one obvious example, the election as president in 1990 of Mary Robinson - the very embodiment of social modernisation and Europhilia - would have been otherwise unthinkable. As Garret FitzGerald et al argue, for the republic membership "has assisted a society, which in the post-revolutionary half-century had become inward-looking, to turn outwards and take its place confidently in the world."[4]

So what is the 'European social model'? According to a senior adviser in DG v (the section of the European Commission responsible for social policy), it is characterised by an open economy, a social floor, educational equality, social partnership and a role for nongovernmental organisations. In essence, therefore, it does not anticipate the supercession of the market economy but yokes it to a régime of social regulation and thus represents the broad contemporary agenda of European social democracy.

It is a model now under severe attack, notably in its greatest success story, Germany, where the high social costs faced by employers are being resisted in the name of competitiveness.[5] Roche and Geary warn that Europe now faces greater competition between industrial relations régimes - between strongly institutionalised systems (as in Germany) protecting labour rights and weakly institutionalised versions (as in Britain) stressing managerial prerogatives - with further 'creeping deregulation' likely.[6]

Yet this need not be a prescription for defeatism and passivity. If low social costs were the sole measure of competitiveness, Greece would be the strongest economy in the EU. Roche and Geary also point out how the current European economic success story, the republic, turned towards greater labour-market regulation just as the UK was moving - much less successfully - in the other direction. The larger argument that the republic's boom is in considerable measure due to its adoption of a European-style régime of social partnership - even if that is not replicated at the level of the firm - is now well-established.[7]

What is required is a reformation of the European social model, an issue addressed by the Comité des Sages on social policy established by the European Commission which met between late 1995 and early 1996. Among its conclusions were: "A renewed, original social model could become the key to European economic competitiveness." It spelt this out thus:

In the global economy to which we belong, competitiveness is a fixed imperative. But competitiveness cannot be improved by dismantling the welfare state or by reducing minimum social standards. What we have to do is change and overhaul our social system: reducing non-wage labour costs; developing social rights, such as training, to foster high value-added forms of production; rejuvenating European social dialogue and turning it into a source of competitiveness; coming up with a coordinated response to population ageing, with basic pension schemes and policies to make it possible for both men and women to reconcile family responsibilities and occupational obligations; tackling the various forms of social exclusion by way of more individualised innovative policies, in close conjunction with the non-governmental organisations; and by paying heed to environmental matters.[8]
The comité recommended that the union should formulate a bill of civic and social rights to translate these principles into the entitlements of citizens. Unfortunately this ambition will not shortly be achieved.

In the here and now, however, precisely because the EU is developing as a 'multi-level polity', it does offer opportunities for intervention by social movements. As Gary Marks rightly argues, while the success of such interventions depends on access to EU institutions and their receptiveness to the issues raised it is also a function of the ability of the organisation concerned to relate to this Euro-environment.[9]

The influence of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action over the EU 'peace package'-both its emphasis on 'social inclusion' and its 'partnership' mechanisms-was a classic example of how a group with a conceptual grasp of the European social model can make a big impact in Brussels. (Unfortunately, as a leading Northern Ireland economist pointed out, this is a debate which is hopelessly undeveloped in the region.)

Paul Bew and Elizabeth Meehan rightly see such political opportunism (in the best sense) as reflecting how voluntary organisations, and others, in seeking to generate tangible socioeconomic benefits to address Northern Ireland's special needs, have come "face to face with political inadequacies in the British constitution", and thus "increasingly see Community regional policies and networks as a means of circumventing the problems of vertical communication through central governments".[10]

"What we have to do is to find the networks to bypass the British government," the director of the Belfast Centre for the Unemployed told an Irish Congress of Trade Unions study on participation of the social partners in the structural funds.[11] There has indeed been a strong involvement by the voluntary sector in the region in wider networks, such as the European Anti-Poverty Network,[12] and with how common concerns (such as the development of 'community infrastructure' in disadvantaged areas) are being progressed in other regions. The interest of the European Commission, developing its 'civic dialogue', in the experience of Northern Ireland is testament to how the region's voluntary sector is seen as along the European leading edge. As one voluntary sector leader put it, there are many "cross-over points" between EU and Northern Ireland networks, across these islands and into other regions - a "complicated matrix" with which she evidently felt entirely constitutionally comfortable.

Introducing a NICVA document on the district partnerships established under the Special Support Package, the former European Commission president, Jacques Delors, described them as "a creative adaptation of the European model of Social Partnership, adjusted to Northern Ireland circumstances."[13] Aideen McGinley, chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, took this broader view when she described the partnerships as "a major social experiment". She told a NICVA-organised conference: "It is about the development of inclusive and effective local democracy. This has transnational and global significance for other troubled areas of the world, illustrating how partnerships can be used as tools for community reconciliation and conflict resolution and the creation of a participative democracy that redresses the fundamental imbalances in our communities."[14]

Thus the 'peace package' has hinted at a redefinition of the political in Northern Ireland, pointing towards a less monopolistic style. The monitoring committee for the programme for the first time explicitly includes representatives of all the social partners, including the voluntary sector, as well as government and European Commission officials; the wider consultative forum replicates this on a broader basis.

At local level, the district partnerships, responsible for allocating some £37 million of the package, comprise one third district councillors, one third community and voluntary sector representatives, and one third private sector and others. The overarching Northern Ireland Partnership Board has a similar composition. The implication of the partnerships is that the skill of politics is redefined as not only having representative or expressive functions but also functions of dialogue and deliberation, in a rapport with social interests, driven by a commitment to securing public goods.

Unfortunately, some political representatives understood this as a usurpation of their legitimate role by unelected community activists. On the contrary, this is a much more elevated and challenging conception of the activity of politics, as well as potentially more stimulating and productive. Speaking in Dublin in October 1996, the regional affairs commissioner, Monika Wulf-Mathies, said the 'peace package' illustrated how the EU was about "respect for diversity and different cultures and overcoming divisions by working for a common interest". And she added: "People are fed up with the politics of the past."[15]

But not only have the district partnerships been delegated responsibility for some of the expenditure in their district council areas; so-called 'intermediate funding bodies' have also been given that responsibility where their functional capacities are aligned. Thus, in terms of the social inclusion measures, the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, a charitable body wholly independent of government, has been allocated a global grant of £26 million to distribute as it determines to groups on the ground. Indeed, less than half of the 'peace package' cash is being allocated directly by government.[16]

Both initiatives, in capitalising on local knowledge or practical experience in the field, imply a decisive shift away from what Paul Hirst perceives as the outdated notion of the 'omnicompetent' state,[17] towards more devolved mechanisms. Problems - notably of ultimate financial accountability - remain. But these are important pointers towards a form of governance more appropriate to a diverse society like Northern Ireland, where all social groups need to feel they enjoy an equal stake. The same principles apply to the north-south agenda, where instead of a purely intergovernmental approach Co-operation North was given an IFB role.

In an age weary of the bureaucratic failings of governance via state corporations, and frightened by the destruction of the social fabric occasioned by reducing governance to the workings of the market, governance through civil society offers an increasingly attractive alternative. At a round-table on the theme of Negotiated Economic and Social Governance and European Integration, in Dublin in May 1996, Hirst argued, however, that such experiences had been limited to the local and the evanescent.

At the same event, though, Ash Amin drew on Danish experience to elaborate more broadly what he described as a 'negotiated model' of governance, which he suggested had five aspects:

The first is a high level of interest representation and organisation of public life across economy, politics and society. The second is the considerable spread of decisional authority and autonomy across a system of plural interest representation. Third, and as a consequence, the state plays a distinctive role as arbitrator and facilitator between autonomous organisations, in addition to that of rule-maker and specialised provider of collective services. The fourth aspect concerns the evolution of a dense network of vertical and horizontal channels of representation and communication as the basis for decision-making and policy co-ordination. The final aspect is the reliance on iterative dialogue for conflict resolution and policy consensus, through a variety of routine organisational devices such as informal policy networks, arbitration councils, multi-interest special committees and co-representation.[18]
This provides a highly suggestive framework for how state and civic institutions should interrelate in Northern Ireland, particularly in how its diffusion of power would block monopolisation and abuse as well as injecting ideas and momentum. It is striking, by contrast, how silent the framework document, for all its impenetrable complexity, is on this whole area of the practice of governance - it is almost as if the two governments never thought it would come to that.

This broader perspective is important to keep in mind - especially when debates about Euro-cash threaten to dazzle us with the glint of the ECUs.


1 Michael Dunford and Ray Hudson, Decentralised models of governance and economic development: lessons from Europe', in Northern Ireland Economic Council, Decentralised Government and Economic Performance in Northern Ireland, NIEC occasional paper 7, Belfast, 1996, p150
2 The only other directive to date has been in the arena of parental leave; standards in Germany or Denmark were already far higher.
3Paul Hainsworth, 'Political parties and the European Community', in A Aughey, P Hams-worth and M Trimble, Northern Ireland in the European Community: An Economic and Political Analysis, Policy Research Institute, Queen's University Belfast/University of Ulster, 1989, p51
4Paul Gillespie ed, Britain's European Question: The Issues for Ireland, Institute of European Affairs, Dublin, 1996, p38
5'Is the model broken?', Economist, May 4th 1996
6 W K Roche and J F Geary, 'Negotiated governance, industrial relations regimes and European integration', paper prepared for the COST A7 workshop on Negotiated Economic and Social Govemance and European Integration, organised by the National Economic and Social Council, Dublin, May 1996
7 Rory O'Donnell and Calm O'Reardon, 'Ireland's experiment in social partnership, 1987-96', also presented to the COST A7 workshop
8For a Europe of Civic and Social Rights, report by the Comité des Sages, European Commission, Brussels, 1996, p14
9Gary Marks and Doug McAdam, 'Social movements and the changing structure of political opportunity in the European Union', West European Politics, vol 19, no 2, April 1996
10 Elizabeth Meehan and Paul Bew, 'Regions and borders: controversies in Northern Ireland about the European Union', European Journal of Public Policy, vol 1, no 1, 1994, pp 95-6
11 Irish Congress of Trade Unions, The Participation of Trade Unions and other Social Partners in the Community Support Framework for Northern Ireland, Belfast, 1993, p62
12 The director of NICVA Quintin Oliver, was the founding EAPN president.
13 Partners for Progress: The Voluntary and Community Sector's Contribution to Partnership-building, NICVA, Belfast, 1996
14 Making Partnerships Work, a report of a conference of that name, NICVA, Belfast, 1996, p33
15 Brendan Keenan, 'Row over NI funds gives wrong signal: EU chief', Irish In dependent, October 19th 1996
16 'EU gives go-ahead to £240 million peace package for North', Irish Times, July 29th 1995
17 Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994, passim
18 Ash Amin, 'The negotiated economy: state and civic institutions in Denmark', paper delivered to the COST A7 workshop

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