Warning on economy - Fairness is central to any recovery

The European Commission’s assessment of our economy makes for sobering if not dispiriting reading.

Warning on economy - Fairness is central to any recovery

It suggests we face, at a minimum, another four years of difficult budgets. In immediate terms the commission predicts a €2.5bn cut in Government spending next year, some 25% more than had been anticipated.

After more than six years of cuts to public services, business closures, something approaching a Biblical exodus from the country, utterly unsustainable rates of unemployment and falling standards of living right across society, this prognosis is daunting. At this stage it would not be unreasonable, indeed it would be entirely human, to hope for a more optimistic outlook. What, after all, was — is — all of the sacrifice for? Even the most sceptical might accept that these figures are a blow to politicians who risked political capital, reputation and electoral prospects by advancing deeply unpopular measures to try to resolve our still-not-fixed crisis.

The commission’s assessment was published just as the OECD warned that curtailing social policies risked deepening the impact of the recession.

At its simplest this EC/OECD juxtaposition is another expression of the dilemma facing governments in societies that express a strong commitment to supporting the weakest in society — how do you sustain or improve supports without putting a disproportionate, alienating burden on those who create the wealth essential to fund social supports?

The OECD, amongst many other terribly challenging issues, highlighted the plight of young people who have been out of work for considerable periods of time warning that they face a lifetime of diminished earnings and weakened job opportunities. This, if ever there was one, seems a recipe for social disaster and deep, unacceptable inequity. The Paris-based organisation also warns against cutbacks to education as it denies opportunity and causes long-term damage to economies. But then how do we, or any other society that lived, and is still living, well beyond its means for decades, fit the commission peg into the OECD hole?

The European Commissioner for Employment, Social affairs and Inclusion, László Andor, speaking on the EU’s internal market at the University of Uppsala yesterday, tried to answer what has, in so many ways, become the defining question of the age.

“Workers’ rights, protection and welfare are crucial to the success of our social market economy in so far as they bolster social cohesion and ultimately our general prosperity . . . The EU’s social market economy has always sought to reconcile protection of workers and their rights with economic freedoms . . . This is a crisis of the EMU, and deepening the single market is part of the solution. But deepening the single market can only help the solution if fairness prevails and not only short-term economic efficiency is pursued.”

There seems an irrefutable logic, not to mention morality, to his assertion even if it is increasingly difficult to see how those principles are celebrated, strengthened or even considered in a globalised world.

Tragically, the crisis that provoked Commissioner Andor’s remarks has so weakened the position of workers — and even more so, the position of those without work — that most must accept what they are offered no matter how basic. He is absolutely right though when he says that achieving social fairness is every bit as important as realising short-term economic efficiency.

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