Séamus Boland: We cannot be strong, unless we are united

The biggest challenge facing people is the growing level of poverty, now exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19

Photo: EESC Séamus Boland

Instead of a need for a universal basic income, I see a need for guaranteed access to basic services, strengthened social security and welfare systems and decent minimum wages across Europe. The latter would guarantee proper dignity and respect to all workers, especially people who are employed in lower-paid jobs in our economy, says Séamus Boland, President of the EESC Diversity Europe Group, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Boland, you took over the presidency of the Diversity Europe Group in very challenging times. What will be your main priorities during your mandate?

The biggest challenge facing people is the growing level of poverty, now exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19. So in that overarching context, my priorities for the presidency are supporting civil society organisations in all their work. Many of these are dealing with communities affected by the impact of Covid-19 in terms of unemployment, health and the consequences of poverty. We will promote the Green Deal as advocated by the EU, with particular reference to achieving the necessary 'just transition' to zero carbon emissions. Linked to that will be the range of sectors affected by climate change, which will need to adapt to the necessary changes. These include transport, energy provision, consumer needs and food provision. On our list of tasks is also promotion of measures to manage digitalisation, supporting the implementation of 'rule of law' measures and continuing with work based on the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Talking about poverty, what could be the role of civil society organisations across Europe in combating it?

Many of them are at the forefront of helping people affected by Covid-19. Already they are helping with the delivery of basic food and resources.

They are also acutely aware of the realities for families who have slipped into poverty and cannot leave it. Their role then becomes one based on their ability to engage with people in distress, by providing necessary assistance. They can act as a platform to conduct essential needs-based research and as advocacy organisations on behalf of people who do not have a voice.

In the context of deepening inequality and reaching critical levels of unemployment in some EU countries due to the Covid-19 crisis, isn't it time for Europe to introduce universal basic income?

Instead of a need for a universal basic income, I see a need for guaranteed access to basic services, strengthened social security and welfare systems and decent minimum wages across Europe. The latter would guarantee proper dignity and respect to all workers, especially people who are employed in lower-paid jobs in our economy. The Committee recently adopted an opinion on the subject of decent minimum wage. I believe this Opinion is very useful to the discussions across all EU Member States in this regard, and it asserts the value of social partnership as well as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders must be included. I invite all stakeholders to read it. Of course, the concept of a universal basic income is not new, and I know during Covid-19 some countries have delivered a type of distributed income which was necessary to alleviate sudden job losses. This has worked well and should be examined as a mechanism that would contribute to poverty eradication in the long term.

How does your group plan to work during the pandemic and will the Irish phrase 'Ní neart go cur le chéile' be your slogan?

In the Diversity Europe Group, we are members of many different and sometimes opposing sections in society, but we have a common goal: consensus, which ensures that our work reflects the interests of all European citizens. While animated discussion and debate in our group is crucial, it will follow the Irish phrase 'Ní neart go cur le chéile': We cannot be strong, unless we are united. Constructive dialogue, collaboration and mutual trust will be the cornerstones of our work, even if the pandemic forces us to adapt our working methods.

Under the current circumstances, we will need to apply a flexible working approach. We cannot set in stone a work programme with detailed activities for the next 12 months. We will restrict our programming to three-month periods, not more. Many of us are connected to various civil organisations which are at the forefront of providing help to people affected by this pandemic. Group III will continue to support these organisations and from the examples of assistance they are providing, we will use this to advance the case for practical support, which they so desperately need.

What we do in the group and at the Committee must reach the public in our home countries, regions and communities. Involving civil society organisations, including European platforms, in our work is another important point. Building partnerships with those actors is of crucial importance to us, as we aim at truly strengthening participatory democracy across the European Union.

To what extent can the Green Deal solve the major economic, social and health problems that the society is facing?

The pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in our systems. As a consequence, we cannot go back to business as usual. We must build for the better, recovery and reconstruction.

The so-called “green transition” can provide solutions, if it follows the principles of “Just transition” and “No one is left behind”, and if civil society is actively involved in the process. The green transition must avoid measures that could lead to embedding poverty. On the contrary, it will provide new opportunities for socio-economic development, beginning with addressing poverty, and sustainability. However, it must go hand-in-hand with other European initiatives, such as NextGenerationEU, the European Health Union, the European Digital Strategy and efforts to defend fundamental rights and democratic values. Our group has framed its priorities within the context of these solutions.

The Commission launched a week ago a detailed action plan for the inclusion and integration of migrants and of EU citizens with such background. How can civil society help in this respect?

It can help in the following way. Firstly, through education of their communities on the issues dealing with assimilation of migrants into their communities. Secondly, they can be of practical help, both to the authorities and the migrants themselves. And thirdly, they can assist in the development of essential policies that will contribute to greater inclusion.

Brexit affects all EU countries in many aspects but what does it means for Ireland, and especially for the civil society organisations?

For Ireland it is a direct threat to the peace agreement, which is essential not just for Ireland, but for Europe as well. The border is also a problem for the movement of goods, which will need new and radical solutions. For civil society organisations, particularly those working with young people, in health and education, it will be important to have a flexible approach.

What is your agenda for the Conference on the Future of Europe?

On my agenda I would propose the eradication of poverty, the implementation of the Green Deal using Just Transition Principles and the design of a recovery plan that is fair and inclusive.

Clearly there will be a range of associated issues arising out of Covid-19, particularly health related and health research, and I would certainly support this.

With these lockdowns and travel restrictions posed throughout Europe, aren't there too many rights taken away from the citizens?

Yes. It would appear that there has been a huge assault on basic civil rights as a means of defeating the virus.

We will be seeking a unified approach among all EU institutions and across Member States that all measures taken, which have infringed rights, must be lifted. Citizens should not be forced into living with all these new restrictions or a version of them, without proper consultation and where necessary, compensation.

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Séamus Boland from Ireland is the new President of the European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC) Diversity Europe Group, elected on 27 October. He is CEO of the Irish Rural Link, Board Member of the Inland Fisheries Ireland and Chair of the Peatlands Council. He joined the EESC as Member in 2011 and was Vice-President of the Diversity Europe Group during the last term. In the past, Séamus Boland presided study groups on topics such as minimum wages, migration and sustainable development and was rapporteur on various topics related to agriculture, rural development, energy, social affairs and Brexit, amongst others, Fighting poverty and CAP simplification. The Diversity Europe Group is one of three groups that form the EU advisory body EESC. It represents various social, occupational, economic and cultural organisations.

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