Wednesday kicked off with a meeting at the offices of ESAN. Sorcha from CECODHAS started the proceedings. CECODHAS is the European Liaison Committee for Social housing. It is a non-profit making organisation, representing its member organisations (33) to European and International Institutions – formed in 1988.As regards the current issues being pursued by CECODHAS outlined how the issue of immigrants is high on their agenda. CECODHAS sees the commission as being too focussed on employment as a means of integration, with too little an influence on housing. This view was to be echoed by our journalist friend later in the day when he questioned the idea of welcoming immigrants on the basis of the need for labour. How do we view them when the jobs dry up? Sorcha outlined the priorities of CECODHAS for 2003: Enlargement, The Convention, The National Action Plans, Cohesion Policy, VAT Legislation and Immigration and Anti-Discrimination Laws.
Next for dissection was Vera Egenberger the Director of European Network Against Racism (ENAR). ENAR is currently composed of 600 European non-governmental organisations active in the field of anti-racism and anti-discrimination in all EU member states. ENAR focuses on 3 main issues to inform its associates on:
Policy developments, directly or indirectly dealing with matters related to equal opportunity, equal rights and anti-racism.
Budget lines and funds available from the institutions of the European Union.
Linking local, regional, national and European initiatives.
ENAR also provides training seminars for members on issues such as lobbying and working with the media. Interestingly from an Irish perspective ENAR does not deal with issues of refuge and asylum, for which there is a separate organisation. Vera accepted that there might be some cases that might fall between the attentions of the two organisations, although they do work together. When questioned Vera recognised the power of the media, not so much in creating racism but in perpetuating it. Curiously she views Ireland as high up on the scale when it comes to anti-racist practice. Perhaps this is due to her separation from issues of refuge and asylum.
Next up was Liliane of ESAN – which unlike the previous two was not an umbrella organisation. ESAN works with people on the street on issues of housing, poverty, children, health and employment, with organisations in Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, UK, Greece and Germany. ESAN provides information and training to local organisations. ESAN is funded by its member organisations and is fully comprised of volunteer workers.
There was an interesting interaction between the 3 organisations. There was an inevitable crossover between the three organisations. A degree of territory claiming was evident. This was evident in a slight disagreement between Liliane and Sorcha as regards the nature of CECODHAS, with Liliane claiming much more of a grassroots connection with the people than CECODHAS. A claim we would also see later in the Committee of Regions. Obviously this claim was very by two distinctly different structures, but that perhaps was the interesting aspect of it. That which is perceived to be closer to the people on the ground always wins credibility whichever side of the coin they are on, be they ngo or governmental institution.
I was left with the impression that the umbrella organisations serve the governmental institutions much better than they do the people on the ground. It is much more convenient for a politician to listen to one rather than 600 voices. It is debateable however that this serves the purpose of the individual ngos and the people they represent. There will be an inevitable dilution of character and variety when organisations come under an umbrella, surely variety and diversity is an essential characteristic of civil society? Why couldn’t the institutions adapt to become more receptive to the variety and number of ngos, rather than vice versa. Reasons of efficiency and time will no doubt be given, but it is all a question of priorities. Evidently the specific and various problems of the people are not high on the priority list.
There was also an interesting debate in regards of languages between Vera and Sorcha. Sorcha claiming that English alone is becoming more sufficient to work in Europe with Vera saying that they do not employ anybody with less than 2 languages.
After lunch we headed in the direction of the European Parliament. Before entering we filled our bags with glossy brochures and leaflets from the Information Centre. After passing through the scanners and a brief wait we met Anette McNamara, a Cork County Councillor for the Blarney area and member of the Committee of regions. We had a one-hour meeting with Anette and two of her colleagues in a very impressive meeting room. We were given a brief description of the committee and its role and workings before we launched into some questions. One of the first being the difference between the Committee and the Parliament. All were quite defensive when the suggestion was made that the need for the Committee was due to a shortcoming of the MEP system - they were full of praise for the Irish MEPs and their huge workload. As with all politicians self-promotion was very evident. Unfortunately we did not have time to question them on the contribution of the Committee to the nationalisation of politics in the EU arena. There were some very valid points made by the members as regards the dearth of EU coverage in the Irish press and the amount of good work going unnoticed. This was a particularly relevant point, as we found out only a few weeks previously a once very prominent Irish
politician now almost unheard of, was one of the leading instigators of anti-poverty policy in Europe – Pronnsias de Rossa. The members were also critical of national governments adopting EU policy and claiming it as their own initiative.
The physical layout of the room and the positions in which people sat was different from that of our meetings with the ngos - we were seated oppositional to the politicians, as being opposed to them. I was also careful to raise the height of my chair, to rebalance my perceived unequal position.
Some of also got the opportunity to listen to a plenary session of the Committee of Regions. It turned out to be quite a memorable one. The efficiency of the interpreters alone not to mind the variety of languages available was impressive. The issue being discussed was the murder and terrorism of local councillors by Basque separatists in Spain. One councillor told the story of how her brother had been murdered by separatists and hoe difficult her life was in the face of violence and death threats- this and other contributions were quite shocking and put lie to the assertion that Western Europe is a peaceful cohesive place. Anette McNamara contributed to the session by arguing for dialogue with the terrorists and cited the examples of Albert Reynolds and John Major. I got the distinct impression of orderliness and the importance of time constraints during the session and around the building as a whole.
Our last meeting of the day was back in the ESAN office where a woman from the European Women’s Lobby did a presentation for us. An interesting point made was that at the European Convention only 16% of the representatives were women, further underlining the sidelining of women and women’s issues in the whole political process. It was slightly disappointing to hear however that when questioned about the majority middle class presence in women’s organisations, the lady said it was an area they were ‘looking into’—i.e.: the area of bringing in more working class women. However this is undoubtedly part responsibility of the member organisations rather than solely the EWL.
Regis, a journalist from Lille then introduced himself. He worked at the European Social Level as Social Correspondent for ‘La Quinzaire’. His views were in sharp contrast to the NGOs and politicians we has met earlier. When he asked the question ‘Who is doing what on social issues?’ he replied ‘ Nobody and Nothing’. He explained that one of the main difficulties facing European Social Policy was that people are simply more interested in the national social level rather than EU social issues.
The battle for space, influence and opinion at the NGO level was notable again at this meeting, with Sorcha from CECODHAS and the EWL representative selling their ideas to our socially engaged journalist.
Overall the day was highly engaging, interesting and revealing, particularly in regard of the battle for prominence and power at the EU level. One hopes that the various parties we met do not loose sight of the needs of the people on the ground in their struggle for position.