Contrary to popular imagination, not all politics is immediately and continuously conflictual. It is possible in all parliaments to cooperate across the lines of party or group ideology.
In the European Parliament. one vehicle for such shared reflection is the system of twenty-seven parliamentary ‘Intergroups’ – structures (with clear parliamentary rules) which promote informal exchange within the Parliament, and between the Parliament with civil society on a varied range of topics – from Tibet, to Water, to Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Rights. There is even an unlikely-sounding Intergroup on the Camino de Santiago. One such group is the Intergroup on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, in which a major influence is the movement ATD Quart Monde, and which is chaired by the French MEP Sylvie Goulard. On October 17th this group discussed two topics: first, ‘Decent Work and Protection for All’; and second (perhaps less obviously), ‘Consumer Debt, Poverty, and Access to Basic Banking Services’. With limited space I note just one aspect of three themes.
I. The Commissioner for Education and Culture, Androulla Vassiliou, noted that the 26 million unemployed in the EU include 5.5 million young people (under 25 years), twice the proportion as in the whole population. 14 million are ‘NEETS’ – ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’. 40% of those who leave school prematurely become unemployed. Whereas 35% of new jobs require ‘high skills’, 20% of school-leavers have what are formally recognised as ‘low-skills’. Even in so complex a field as poverty therefore, education is a powerful key towards improvement. Yet under the pressure on public budgets of the economic crisis, education cuts have been made in two-thirds of member states. In 19 states, the cut is ‘relative’, that is, as a proportion of GDP: in 10 states it is an absolute cut. In this way, to limit public debt, we threaten any coherent response to the crisis.
II. Whereas in the heat of the crisis, banks often drew down immense state funds to enable a new start (so fuelling in turn the debt crisis of states) almost nothing has been done by states to enable a fresh start for persons who acquired credit-fuelled debt. Many people can never escape from the trap that their future income, as soon as it rose above the formal minimum income, was attached by banks (including those banks that themselves required rescue with public funds). Family poverty is both the expression and a further cause of the structural crisis. The European Parliament has worked hard to stabilise finance sector: but naturally such macro-level work scarcely touches the consciousness of citizens cast adrift from the formal economy
III. In a digital age, the lack of a basic bank account itself constitutes a form of social exclusion. 50 million adult EU citizens still lack a bank account, so find it much harder to rent an apartment, to get a salary, to receive and pay money safely. The Parliament advocates for basic banking services to be free (or at least ‘affordable’, up to 13-14 Euros per year): but there are awkward problems to be resolved about access, about short-term overdraft facilities and fair credit, about access to those living away from their native countries.
There is no single market in banking, so the regulations in member states are diverse. That seems reasonable: but unless the diverse systems are coherent, we no longer inhabit, economically speaking, the ‘same European space’. Unexpectedly, such specific issues thrown light on wider problems of the ‘construction of Europe’: and responding effectively to extreme poverty would itself promote the construction of Europe.
By Frank Turner