Politics is no longer local when democracy is in peril globally

Placards advertising EU elections at European Parliament in Brussels. European Union parliamentary elections will take place from May 23 to 26 across the continent. Picture: Olivier Hoslet/EPA.

Neutrality does not suffice in a world dominated by the US and China, and with the far right resurgent, Ireland must stand up for the values of the European Union, says Malcolm Byrne.

The famous Tip O’Neill adage that ‘all politics is local’ is easily applied to Irish public affairs. But what is happening politically globally is also shaping our lives locally.

Climate change is impacting on agriculture, on fisheries, on how we respond to extreme weather. It is contributing to war and famine, and to levels of global migration unseen since the end of the Second World War.

Technology has opened up enormous opportunities in how we communicate and do business, but governments and citizens must also now deal with cybercrime and cyberterrorism, generally directed from overseas, as well as the threats of ‘fake news’.

The global financial crisis highlighted how, economically, countries are interdependent, and, along with personal losses suffered by millions, confidence in traditional institutions has seriously declined, especially among the young.

While all of these demand innovative responses, they are also shaping global political debate.

While it is true that more people than ever (a majority of the world’s population) now live in democracies, authoritarianism and a lack of respect for democratic values and human rights are on the rise, even in countries where the citizenry can still vote. Brazil, Turkey, Poland, the Philippines, and Hungary are all led by governments that have pushed back on individual freedoms, the rule of law, and human rights.

China, which was becoming more progressive, is now led by a Leninist, Xi Jinping, who has abolished limits on his term of office and who supports the oppression of minorities and dissident voices. Venezuela is an inflation-ravaged economy.

Millions are fleeing its oppressive, far-left regime, on which, until recently, some in Ireland wanted us to model ourselves.

Even in seemingly stable and liberal societies, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, far-right parties have made substantial gains and shaped public debate.

Of the EU’s current 28 member states, 14 have minority governments, many lacking stability.

In the Netherlands, almost all major parties came together to combat the far right, while, in Sweden, it was a struggle to form a government because of the seats held by the far-right Sweden Democrats. Spain remains challenged by the Catalan question, while Italy has a divided government comprising populists from the right and left.

Belgium is regularly without a government, but at least the parties there try to find an arrangement to run the country, unlike the North, where the extremes of the DUP and Sinn Féin remain incorrigible.

We have just done a world tour of how open, tolerant democracy is being challenged and we haven’t even mentioned the Trumpian vision of the world that is emanating from across the Atlantic.

Combine all this with Brexit and our neighbour across the Irish Sea, and the political risks to how we live and do business are immense.

As the fourth-longest, continuous democracy in Europe, and the first in the world to have adopted a constitution by popular vote, we in Ireland should be proud of the value we place on democracy, on human rights, and on the rule of law.

Our thinking has clearly been shaped by our history and we know how abuse of power and conflict hurt everyone.

As the world faces increased uncertainty and democratic values are under threat, it is essential that we stand up to defend those values.

That means calling out those who seek to undermine them.

This represents the best expression of a non-aligned foreign policy, as opposed to a bury-your-head-in-the-sand form of neutrality.

We can do it best by strengthening our engagement in, and support for, multilateral institutions. The European Union is the most obvious of these. In a world that looks set to be dominated by the G2 of China and the US, we need an alternative voice at that table, and the EU is best-placed to have both the economic and soft-power heft, as well as the importance placed on values, to be able to provide that voice.

Asserting those values inside the EU Council and in the European Parliament will be essential. There will be a new European Commission after May, and a new president.

They will require European Parliament support and, so, the positions they espouse should be closely scrutinised.

The far right and far left will be represented in the next European Parliament in greater numbers than ever before.

This will be of concern to Ireland, as these groups oppose trade deals that are essential for job creation here, but also put forward platforms that are divisive and extreme.

Our debates in the past about the European Union have tended to be about what we can gain economically. That is still important. But we must also ask about the democratic values that shape the world, and Ireland should lead that campaign.

Malcolm Byrne is the Fianna Fáil candidate for the Ireland South constituency in May’s European elections.

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