Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Faith schools, Groups and Plurality

Cross over Dubrovnik

BY CC Jeremy Vandel.

Tony Blair's argument for faith schools in The Irish Times yesterday was odd: "Faith schools can help bridge gaps in divided communities". Blair was quick to counter the obvious arguments against faith schools from the situation in Northern Ireland:

"Whenever the topic of faith schools came up it would not be long before Northern Ireland was mentioned. Weren’t the roots of the Troubles down to the children of different faiths being separated in different schools? There was even a claim from those who were adamant that the conflict “wasn’t really to do with religion”. Strange how many people behaved as if it was.

Schooling can divide communities. Think of the pivotal role of schools in desegregation in the US. That much of the argument is valid. But it is not the religious tradition, prioritised in affiliation of staff and students, that matters, but how each tradition is interpreted in the teaching and the life of the school.

Does it instil respect and understanding, an open mind, open to inquiry, at ease with diversity, ready to learn more about other faiths? Or does it create a closed mind, a mindset vulnerable to fear, distrust and coercion, a world where “error has no rights”? In short is it good religion or bad religion?"

Growing up in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of schools were connected with one (Christian) faith or the other - and there is often division on gender lines as well as religious ones. Together with academic selection, there's a lot of different schools in Northern Ireland, and simply not the population numbers or resources to fund it all. One thing we don't lack is division, so how can faith schools bridge these gaps?

"[On schools in Ballycastle]

On one side of the bridge lay the Cross and Passion, a Catholic school; on the other Ballycastle High, a mainly Protestant school.

Led by two outstanding religious education teachers the two schools tentatively began to get together in the late 1960s on a very informal basis. In the 1990s, through “Curriculum 2000” it became a much more formal and structured process.

Through the shared education programme funding, the collaboration has expanded beyond post-16-year-old students to include younger pupils studying for their GCSE exams. They now have a joint school choir and rugby team."

Hmm... So it was in coming together - working together, or singing together, or playing sports together - that they built bridges and overcame divisions? Well why not skip the expensive and time-consuming process of dividing people in the first place, and have them in secular integrated schools from the start?

"Many of our secular schools offer the same skills [from earlier: "instil[ing] respect and understanding, an open mind, open to inquiry, at ease with diversity, ready to learn more about other faiths?"], though I sometimes think they have a more difficult task. The gift is to help young people escape from what the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, writing about “the new religious intolerance” – intolerance of religion – recently dubbed a world of “whatever”." (I personally would have associated "whatever" with indifference and not intolerance, but whatever...).

This is a confused piece. Cooperation between faith schools is a good thing, particularly in places like Northern Ireland where politics has made interfaith tolerance a sensitive issue, and where there is a stronger political impulse to preserve the identities of separate communities using separate institutions as far as possible. It can be difficult to overcome these divisions, and shorter-term methods of building up confidence and respect such as through cross-community or interfaith cooperation are a good thing.

It's a different matter to suggest promoting faith schools where there isn't the same level of historical and inter-community conflict, and to propose faith schools, and cooperation between faith schools, as a way of building bridges between communities. Apart from the fact that the model would encourage sharper division into group identities that may not have existed if people hadn't have been sorted into different schools, it's a mistaken approach to plurality to simply see it simply as a collection of co-existing strong groups. Real pluralism is a patchwork of groups and individuals, with many individuals caught in the overlap. Membership of a group in a pluralist society should not be something that either defines you - and being sorted into schools based on a religious or cultural group identity is a pretty strong way of defining someone early on in life.

This is not to say that group identity shouldn't be accommodated in society: it should. It is more a mark of the respect, tolerance and understanding a society has between groups in society the more they can accommodate each other in a shared space, rather than shutting each other away. Ideally we should not need faith schools to build bridges between us, but would have a common public space where we all interact as a part of life.

I am also uncomfortable with the way this brings religion closer to the state. Blair was at pains to distinguish between "good" and "bad" religion, but conferring resources and privileges equally among religious groups is not only a misguided way of looking at religious freedom, but it also draws them closer in to the state. The state has to decide what religion is deserving of resources (presumably based on numbers, which leads to the question of how far religious groups are encouraged to shout the loudest for resources and privileges), and also is drawn into questions on the role of religion in education. There's a difference between teaching children about different religious beliefs and educating children in a religious ethos so they respect religious beliefs. The classic case is science versus religion - what if religious beliefs conflict with teaching the scientific content of the curriculum? Tony Blair says that faith schools should abide by the curriculum, but it is hard to say on the one hand that a school may have a religious ethos, and then refuse it the freedom to teach its religious teachings, either instead of or along with the curriculum. The state should stay out of religion.

Sometimes it's more practical to foster understanding between groups by building bridges between their respective institutions - particularly in divided or post-conflict societies - but we should be working towards a pluralism that is a common public space for everyone, not a gangway of rickety bridges.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Choppy waters for the Fiscal Stability Treaty in the Bundestag


It's interesting to see the politics of passing the Fiscal Stability Treaty in the German Bundestag over the last few weeks. Angela Merkel's government needs the opposition for the two thirds majority needed to pass the Treaty, and the opposition Social Democrats and Greens are trying to extract concessions on a growth agenda for Europe that echoes some of François Hollande's proposals.

The opposition wants:

- The strengthening of the European Investment Bank.
- Bonds for the indebted countries of the EU (I understand this to mean bonds that cover the debts in excess of the 60% of GDP-limit).
- Better use of the EU structural funds.
- Project bonds.
- A financial transaction tax.

(There is also an issue of how it will affect the Bundesländer, or the states, and local government).

The biggest clash lately has been over the financial transaction tax (FTT). Initially the government said that it would be impossible for an FTT to be brought in before the end of the legislative period, but now the Commission has come out contradicting the German government. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that it could be possible to pass a law on FTT by the end of the year, and collect the tax in 2014 (in the next German legislative period). If the FTT is to pass this year, it will be under enhanced cooperation between at least 9 Member States, given that taxation is still subject to the veto and the UK refusal to sign up to an FTT. Die Süddeutsche notes that the finance ministers of Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Belgium and Austria signed up to the principle of an FTT in February, though obviously there would be a lot of detail to hammer out between them, and there's no guarantee an FTT coalition will look the same when it comes to passing the law.

It's worth noting that the Süddeutsche also reports that the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, seems to be considering another extra-EU treaty if it would be a faster way of achieving an FTT. What could this mean for the talking point of the month, the Banking Union? If an FTT was seen as a way of financing support of the financial sector without burdening the taxpayer, then it could be dangerous for other Eurozone countries to sit out talks on this FTT if it could be expanded to fit into the Banking Union or be taken as a model for it. Another extra-EU treaty would be a bad direction to go in: the EU provides a procedure for further integration of a group of Member States, and circumventing the EU institutions further poisons the trust in the rules and procedures agreed to by all Member States being respected.

The Fiscal Stability Treaty is part of a piecemeal approach that is rightly open to criticism: it doesn't solve the crisis in itself, and without a comprehensive deal on what a fiscal union will look like, these half-measures will erode confidence in the ability of the Eurozone to get its affairs in order. Hopefully this initiative of the German opposition will help push a more balanced and fairer approach to the Eurozone crisis, but it would be better if the left started cooperating across borders on what it wants to see from a fiscal union.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Mmm... Banking Flavoured Union

With Barroso calling for a banking union - and saying parts of it could be put in place in 2013 - there's wall-to-wall coverage of Banking Union in the media. There's not much I can add, except that it seems pretty clear to me that separating banking debt and the Eurozone banking system from sovereign debt is a key issue we need to gets to grips with and a Banking Union is urgently needed as part of the solution to the crisis. I've been thinking of covering Irish MEPs a bit more too, so I'll just leave you with a video I found of Marian Harkin's One Minute Speech on the subject:

Monday, 11 June 2012

Linguistic Complaints

"French Law"; "En Danger De Justice"

 BY CC umjanedoan.

As a lazy English-speaker, I can't complain when it comes to the EU and language: there's no doubt about it, I'm in the privillaged group when it comes to communication. So there's very little I can add to Martin Holterman's rebuttal of Quatremer's complaints on the decline of French in the EU, except to highlight that in European law, French is still the top dog.

A good example is the European Court of Justice,* where French is the first language. So much so, that the application forms for interns is only in French. Perhaps someone can correct me, but I'm not aware of an EU institution that only has an application form in English.

The truth is that French is a privileged language in the EU - sure, not as big as English, but it's streets ahead of the most widely-spoken native language in the EU (German), and light years ahead of any other language. So there isn't really any call for alarmism over the Commission's economic assessments being made in English. After all, wasn't the Lisbon Treaty first drafted in French...?**

*Ok, the Court of Justice of the European Union if you want to be technical.

** Leading to Grahnlaw comparing the French and English versions of the provisions on citizenship.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Europe's soul is distinctly parliamentary

The European Council has stumbled from summit to summit over the course of this crisis, and the European Parliament, despite being the most democratically legitimate EU institution, has not been the site of the central debates about how to fix the Eurozone. Nosemonkey has just written a great article on the need for more democratic legitimacy in the EU, and the ability to finally make a decision. However, I disagree with him - and the German Christian Democrats - that a directly elected president is the answer. I don't think a presidency could work in practice because Europe's soul is distinctly parliamentary.

Out of the 27 (and soon to be 28) Member States, all but France and Romania are either parliamentary republics, or constitutional monarchies with a parliamentary system. Even France and Romania are only semi-presidential. Parliamentarianism is part of the political culture of the Member States, and part of European political culture generally. In the EU system, the European Parliament elects the Commission and the Commission President - who is nominated by the European Council on the basis of which Group in the Parliament won the election, which is reminiscent of the role of the monarch in many European constitutional monarchies.

Of course, the declining election turnout for the Parliament has caused a crisis of legitimacy for the institution. Without a clear platform for electing an executive, and because European elections are second-order elections, voters have few clear political options on the European stage. Europarty primaries and common campaigns centred around a Commission presidential candidate (read: prime ministerial) might eventually change that, but it's a long hard slog and is unlikely to give the boost in legitimacy needed overnight. In contrast to this, an elected president, usually seen as a directly elected European Council president or a combination of this role and the Commission President, is a relatively simple institutional tweak, a small treaty change, and it would establish a clear leadership position for election.

I don't think it would work culturally or institutionally.

Culturally, a presidential system would present too clear of a binary choice in a continent used to coalition-building on the national level. I don't necessarily just mean the Member States used to coalition government (though many of them are), since even in parliamentary systems where there is a single-party government, parties tend to be broad churches. It also provides for a strong government, which I  believe is culturally embedded across the continent, but not government that is simply built around one person, despite the growing presidentialisation of the parliamentary system (France is a bit of an exception here, although with a strong president, there is a strong executive). Parliaments provide a space for ideological debate between political factions, and a government based on a coalition of support across a majority of society as represented in parliament. While a directly elected president may have a strong mandate on paper, I think that this would be culturally undermined by the suspicion that the presidency's interests and loyalties are too narrow, and not sufficiently representative.

A presidency would also be quite weak institutionally, since he or she would sit in the European Council as head of an institution in which he or she had no power base. Sure, whoever is elected would have greater legitimacy than the national leaders in the context of the European Council, but those leaders represent important and valid electoral interests, and will not - and should not - simply bow to a European President. The president would also lack a power base in the European Parliament, and could be politically different to the Parliament's majority. It's hard enough for cohabitation to work in France or the US without trying at the same time to build up a profile and confidence in an elected EU president. Without a natural power base around which to build coalitions or majorities for proposals, the presidency would likely dash electoral hopes raised in the election due to the inability to honour his or her manifesto. This goes back to my point about the culture for strong government: weak elected governments rarely win a second term, institutionally weak systems are rarely respected. And who would vote for an institution that cannot deliver? Is that not the argument for the declining European election turnout?

I have the personal bias of believing in parliamentarianism, but it seems to me to be the only system that could possibly work on the European level. There needs to be a broad coalition which a majority can not just buy into at the time of a momentary choice between two candidates, but generally as well. This is best done by a parliamentary coalition comprising of a majority of opinions, not a single individual. The Commission could evolve into a cabinet with a Prime Minister figure at its head.

A lot of time and effort would need to be made to even attempt to deliver this, but a presidential system is the same old attitude of tinkering with the institutional set-up when you get down to it: real work needs to be done at the local level, and only political movements - parties - running for election on common platforms can provide the incentive and promise realistic results in order to sustain this work. Which is why I believe a working Europe could only ever be a parliamentary one.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Protest votes and constructive campaigns

Yesterday I voiced my reluctant support for a Yes vote in the Irish referendum over on the Guardian's Comment is Free website. Vincent Browne, an Irish journalist and broadcaster, contributed to the argument for a No vote. Perhaps it's unfair of me to go on about the referendum after the polls have closed (we should see the result later today), but this part of Vincent's argument in particular stood out for me:

"[On voting No] I will do so in awareness of the risk there is involved were a majority to do as I will do, and in disagreement with many of the claims made by the no side in the campaign."

Unfortunately this line devalues the rest of the argument, since it seems to be made from the viewpoint that he hopes that there is a Yes vote to prevent the consequences of a No vote, while at the same time being free to issue a protest vote. (But then perhaps I've misread it and he simply wants to emphasise that he is aware of the consequences). Vincent goes on to outline that he is voting No: in protest against the government, in opposition against the EU elite, in opposition against the German elite, in opposition to the neo-liberal agenda, to express indignation at the disregard for the procedures and rules of the EU, to prevent the fiscal rules from being written into the constitution, and in solidarity with those in Europe who have not had the chance to vote on it in referendum. I'm at a lost as to how a No vote could practically advance a political agenda on these fronts.

Now, it must be stressed that we wrote our arguments separately and without knowing the main arguments that the other would use, so we weren't really responding to each other. In fact, Vincent's argument is an extract of a longer article over at Politico.ie here. By coincidence, it was written on Tuesday, the same day I came out in favour of a Yes vote. In the director's cut version of his argument, Vincent admits that there will be austerity in any case and that we may have to ratify the treaty for a bail-out in the future (if we vote No now, then we would need to vote Yes in the future to get a bail-out, which he thinks will probably be necessary), but he bases his position on the need for a different kind of society:

"We need to work towards a radically different society, where people have some real control over their lives; where inequalities of wealth, income, power, influence, social capital and cultural capital are radically narrowed; where patriarchy is subverted; where respect is accorded to everyone equally, regardless of status, class, sex, wealth or position; where protections for workers are buttressed, not dismembered by “labour market reforms”.

And to achieve that those of us who believe in this kind of society have to win arguments and minds through thoughtful debate, diligent and truthful analysis expressed in accessible forms, devoid of the familiar weary clichés and bombast."

I would be interested in that debate, and in what Vincent sees as the main steps to get there. And what would be the kind of Europe that would facilitate this? What kind of Eurozone would be a more equal, just and lasting project?

I ended up siding with the Yes side this time around because I couldn't see any viable political agenda that could be pushed forward by voting No. If there was a more focused campaign, not limited to a single referendum, but on demonstrating support in Ireland and elsewhere in the Eurozone for the type of Eurozone people want to see, then it could form an effective rival vision. If Vincent - or others - are interested in promoting a vision of or a campaign for a more equal and workable Eurozone, then I would be interested in joining and supporting that.

In any case, I would like to hear what kind of Eurozone Vincent would vote for.