Has there ever been a more important European election? The European Union (EU) was founded on the values of peace, solidarity, democracy and respect for human rights. Yet, as we go to the polls on Friday, these fundamental values are under threat.
The EU is facing unprecedented challenges; challenges that strike to the heart of what Europe stands for and what our shared future will look like.
A number of EU member states openly defy the values on which the union was formed. Frustrations with systemic failures have been expertly stoked by those who wish to exploit them for political gain. New forms of populism, isolationism and xenophobia threaten the European model of co-operation and solidarity.
Ireland is not immune from the self-interested politics that has allowed the rise of nationalism in Europe. Structural disadvantage in our society remains entrenched. Almost all of the conditions that have historically allowed populism and nationalism to rise could become present in Ireland unless we take strong steps to safeguard a society that believes in human decency and in defending the rights of the most vulnerable – not just in Ireland but in the EU.
International solidarity and social justice are core elements of Ireland’s national identity. Nearly 1,000 Irish citizens participated in a series of Citizens’ Dialogues on the Future of Europe, an EU-wide consultation. Almost all of those involved were positively disposed towards the EU, with participants associating words such as “peace”, “unity”, “solidarity” and “cooperation” with membership of the Union.
Participants said that they want to be part of a Union that lives up to its values and is ready to meet the challenges that we face. The overarching desire was for fairness – fairness in the opportunities available to citizens, fairness between generations, fairness between member states, fairness in Europe’s dealings with the rest of the world and fairness towards the environment.
Friday’s election takes place as young people all over the EU, and the wider world, take to the streets to demand increased climate action.
Climate change and environmental degradation pose an existential threat. We are living in the sixth age of mass extinction. The combination of species decline and a warming world means the Earth is careering towards a catastrophic collapse of ecosystems.
The tragic loss of hundreds of lives, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of families in Southern Africa as a result of Cyclone Idai, are a sobering reminder that the impacts of climate change today are already devastating for the world’s poorest people. But yet, the world’s richest economies have been slow to act. Where are our values of global solidarity when the poorest continue to pay the price for our failures?
Migration is another area where traditional European values are under threat. Wars close to our borders have caused enormous human suffering. The EU’s response has been too inward-looking. At a time when millions of people are in need of support, Europe has pulled up the drawbridge and locked its doors.
In Libya, people escaping persecution and war are being detained by criminal gangs. They are subjected to torture and rape. While we rightly criticise Donald Trump’s administration for their callous actions on their southern border, what about our own actions on our own southern border? EU states are also building walls.
In order to rise to the collective challenges we face, the next EU institutions must more fully live up to the values on which the EU was founded. These values must be put into practice when shaping and implementing policies that impact on millions of people, both within and outside of Europe.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a powerful vision for realising a more sustainable, just future for all. The EU’s new political leadership must ensure that all of its internal and external polices are coherent and aligned with the SDGs.
As citizens, we have a huge role to play in ensuring this happens. On Friday, thousands of young people will be watching to see how those who can vote exercise our civic responsibility. These young people will inherit the world we are shaping.
Let’s make it a better world: environmentally, socially and politically.
Let’s look for leaders who will tackle structural injustice in Ireland, Europe and the wider world and who will commit to building the sort of Europe we want our children to live in.
Caoimhe de Barra is CEO of Trócaire.