Thursday 14 November 2019

How we treat the less fortunate is the litmus test of European civilisation

It's reassuring to learn from the latest poll that the Irish people are in no mood to gloat over the plight of the Greeks

'If Joan Burton is serious about winning the support of that symbolic young stay-at-home mum to whom the party has started referring, cringeworthily, as
'If Joan Burton is serious about winning the support of that symbolic young stay-at-home mum to whom the party has started referring, cringeworthily, as "Ashbourne Annie", it should give her pause that middle Ireland isn't making the same neat distinction between Greeks and their government'

Eilis O'Hanlon

Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, said Yeats. So has it happened in our case, after having been put through the wringer by Europe following the collapse of our economy?

In making so many painful compromises in the name of recovery, have we lost the ability to empathise with others who are now going through the same ordeal?

Thankfully, the results of the latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll suggest not. Only three in 10 voters agree with the Irish Government's tough stance during the Greek bailout negotiations.

We might not have liked the high-stakes game of bluff that Alexis Tsipiras played with the country's future, but that didn't mean we wanted to hang tough with those who were determined to stamp out all resistance to the austerity project. Having been there ourselves, it felt too much like backing bullies rather than those facing penury and humiliation.

The group in Irish society most comfortable with putting the squeezers on the Greeks seems to be Fine Gael supporters, 43pc of whom back the Government's stance, with 41pc believing that the Greek people and its Government have been treated fairly by Europe.

Interestingly, that's a moral certainty which simply isn't there amongst Labour supporters.

Labourites are strongest of all in their belief that the Greek government was treated fairly by Europe, with 46pc having little sympathy with Syriza, but only 30pc feel the same way about how Europe treated the Greek people. That's quite a differential.

It could be argued that this gap reflects the most sophisticated reading of the situation - reserving sympathy for ordinary Greeks who had to deal with the consequences of the country's plight, whilst having none for Syriza's handling of the situation as it degenerated.

If Joan Burton is serious about winning the support of that symbolic young stay-at-home mum to whom the party has started referring, cringeworthily, as "Ashbourne Annie", it should give her pause that middle Ireland isn't making the same neat distinction between Greeks and their government.

Only 27pc of people overall think Europe treated them fairly in both cases, with half believing Europe treated both unfairly. Or just short of half, to be exact; and if one was to find some cause for disquiet in the figures, it might be in that the number sympathetic to the Greek plight was not larger still. It was hardly a battle of equals between Europe and Athens. David took on Goliath, and Goliath pulled out the heavy economic artillery. David didn't stand a chance. Once we'd have identified much more overwhelmingly with him. Now there's a sizeable minority which clearly thinks Goliath in the right.

The confusion is reflected in the significant number of Don't Knows in this part of the poll. As a country, we could still go either way.

The whole question of how we treat those who are less fortunate than ourselves has been brought into sharper focus in recent weeks, not only because of the unfolding meltdown in Greece, but also by the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and the related pandemonium in Calais, where those seeking to get to the UK have disrupted Channel Tunnel crossings for days as French police attempt to deal with the problem. It would be an understatement to describe what's happening there as a challenge to Europe's sense of itself as a place of refuge and enlightenment.

Right now, public opinion across the EU is struggling to reconcile two contradictory impulses.

The first is a desire to save migrants from danger when crossing from north Africa to the European mainland. The second is an equally powerful desire not to have to take responsibility for the migrants once they make it to safety.

It seems odd to take pride when the LE Niamh rescues men, women and children from the deadly boats in which they're trying to flee to a new life, whilst simultaneously being resentful when called upon to shoulder our fair share of the burden when it comes to offering them a home. The Irish ought to know better than anyone what it's like to set out in stinking coffin ships to a new world; that experience shaped the national consciousness. These people surely deserve our sympathy every bit as much as the Greeks? If anything, their plight should move us more.

The debate around migration is not unrelated to the European crisis, after all. Greece was largely the author of its own downfall. It over stretched itself when it entered the eurozone, and excessive borrowing only made its structural problems worse. On the other hand, it was only able to do so because international capital can now flood distant countries at the touch of a button.

The Brazilian economist Roberto Unger has memorably described this contradiction. "One of the striking features of the form of globalisation that has now been established," he argues, "is that it is based on the premise that goods and even capital should be free to roam but labour must remain imprisoned within the nation state."

Unger argues instead for an expansion of the right of free movement of people. It would have to be within certain limits, but he contends it would "dwarf all other policies that might be proposed to diminish inequality in the world."

This model is surely too radical to catch on in the short term, and would be political suicide to any political party which advocated it, but it gets to the heart of the moral dilemma facing us. Do we only have sympathy for fellow Europeans who are suffering, or do we extend compassion to those people drowning in the Mediterranean and risking their lives to make it through the Channel Tunnel?

The innate decency of people can probably be seen in their response when asked whether Sinn Fein has been damaged by its association with, and support of, Syriza. The consensus has been that Tsipras' failure to change the way politics was done in Europe risked dealing a fatal blow to SF's boastful insistence that it could do the same.

Nearly one-in-four said SF has not been damaged by its support for Syriza. But only 30pc say that it has, with again a noticeably high number of Don't Knows. Here one can probably discern a marked distinction between those in Ireland who are absolutely certain that Left is the way to go and those equally convinced that it is not.

In this interpretation, the Don't Knows represent people in the middle who aren't yet sure how what happened in Greece will play out long term, but are reluctant to kick the Greeks now that they're down.

Most voters can afford to leave that question until nearer an election, when they have to decide whether to risk giving SF and the Irish Left the green light to give a revised version of the Syriza plan another go.

Sunday Independent

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