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A Gulf in Perceptions

I have been pondering some of the responses to a Facebook post yesterday in a pro-EU forum. Contributors were asked to say whether they voted “remain” or “leave” back in June 2016 and to say why. The majority of responses came from people who voted “remain”. What struck me was the way in which the reasons for that decision mirrored the reasons usually given for a “leave” vote, and the gulf in perceptions, not just about membership of the EU, but the world view that it revealed.

Image from https://www.markdyble.com/the-number-1-danger-of-brexit-for-small-business/union-jack-eu-flag/

I guess it’s been obvious for many years that such a gulf existed but prior to the referendum it was relatively hidden. Since then it has led to accusations of ignorance and treason from both sides. So what are these different perceptions and how can the gulf that separates them be bridged?

“For 40 years membership has never been a real problem and still isn’t. The economic, social and cultural benefits of membership are incalculable.” (JS)

Clearly that view is in complete opposition to those who believe that the EU is the source of all the UK’s recent problems.

“The EU protects the European continent’s food supply, ensures sustainable fish stocks, protects the environment and aims to ensure that as larger global powers become economically stronger the EU maintains strength and European values through unity.” (RV)

Again, a view that is contrary to the “leave” camp’s belief that the EU’s agriculture and fisheries policies are damaging to rural and coastal communities across Britain.

“I think we need immigration and we have lots of Polish where I live and I really like the Polish – they work hard and are polite and a lot nicer than some other people. They have brought footfall to our High Street which was becoming deserted.” (SH-C)

In contrast, there were, at the time of the referendum, a number of vox-pops on television in which people complained their high street was no longer recognisable with all the Polish shops and foreigners taking jobs.

The same contributor to the forum also said this: “It’s quite a good idea to have other higher courts to look at matters of say human rights,” a point echoed by another: “I voted remain because the EU’s laws are the only thing protecting the ordinary people of this country from exploitation by our politicians and employers.” (IR)

A sentiment which is in direct opposition to those who want to “take back control of our laws”.

“I value my right to live, work, study or retire anywhere from the West Coast of Ireland to the Black Sea, or from the Arctic Circle to the edge of North Africa. I think that the EU guarantees standards and conditions which successive Tory governments try to remove. I think it’s much better to resolve disputes between nations with a legal process instead of dispatching the armed forces.” (DF)

A recognition of the way in which the EU’s Freedom of Movement principle is a two way street benefiting many British students, workers and retirees, a fact that many who voted “leave” either ignore or deem to have been gained at too high a price.

“We have huge global challenges to solve and we can do that better as a block.” (JC) A sentiment expanded upon by another contributor: “I voted for Remain mainly to keep our sovereignty. Without being part of the biggest trading block in the world we’ll be a punching bag for larger powers such as the USA, the EU and China upon which we depend economically more than they depend on us and therefore can force us to do things against our will. Inside the EU we have a fair share of power and say in what the rules are and are protected against unfair bullying by larger powers such as China or the USA.” (SK)

The idea that pooling sovereignty with our neighbours actually strengthens that sovereignty is completely alien to those who believe we have lost sovereignty and can only regain it by leaving the EU. Such people seem unable to grasp the idea that making trade deals with anyone involves a quid-pro-quo and that any deal we reach with any of these larger powers is likely to involve the loss of some of the “control” the UK is intent on “taking back” from the EU.

“Because the EU has, in 40 painstaking years, cleared away protectionism and created an actual free market where countries can trade with each other without barriers, which improves our ability to export, and lowers prices. And countries have valued that so much that they really want to join it, that’s how three former fascist dictatorships and ten former communist countries have come in to the EU and become richer, more mature democracies.
When I was a child, about half the countries now in the EU were very hard to visit. Now we can travel there freely, live, love and learn across a whole continent, and the understanding we have gained about each other is what keeps our peace.”
(JS)

There are several things here that “leave” voters would contest. For a start they see the EU as a protectionist bloc that uses tariffs to exclude imports from non-member states, ignoring the many free trade arrangements the EU has made with underdeveloped countries, providing tariff free access for certain goods and, inter-alia, making nonsense of the claim by some pro-brexit MPs that we can have cheaper imports from those countries when we leave. Secondly, I think I can say without being accused of elitism that most of the people who voted “leave” have no interest whatsoever in understanding their fellow Europeans.

I think that AD sums up perfectly what all these “Remain” voters believe about the EU: “European unity, security and freedom of movement. Rejection of nationalistic sovereignty.”

And therein lies the crux of the problem. Half the country welcomes the opportunities that EU membership has provided, remembers the horrors that red blooded nationalism brought to Europe twice during the last century, and rejects the idea that the accident of being born in any particular place makes you better than someone born elsewhere. The other half clings to the antiquated notion that being “English” makes them superior. That, certainly, is why we hear so many cries of “Traitor”.

I grew up believing that being English meant more than that. I was proud that English men and women, alongside other Europeans, had developed a set of values that had the potential to make the world a better place. The sentiments that underpin the “leave” campaign are diametrically opposed to that world view. I wish I knew how to undo the damage done by those in the media who have spent 40 years denigrating the EU and those very English values it stands for. I fear that it is too late. I fear for the future of the UK and the young generation that is about to have taken from it the many opportunities their parents took for granted.

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Irish School Students Helping Their African Counterparts #WATWB

secundary-schoolv3Portlaoise College is a dual purpose establishment, both a secondary school and a further education college. Back in 2007 I attended evening classes in painting there. At that time it was the newest of Portlaoise’s education campuses, having been constructed the previous year. More recently all of Portlaoise’s secondary schools have been housed in new buildings on a campus on the other side of town. This post is about the activities of a group of students and teachers from Portlaoise college’s secondary school facility and draws on a story from one of the town’s weekly newspapers.

Secondary Education in Ireland ends with two certificates: the Junior Certificate of Education, examined at age 16, and a two year Leaving Certificate curriculum examined at 18 or 19. These school certificates are roughly equivalent to the UK’s General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and ‘A’ levels. Between completing Junior Cert and embarking upon Leaving Cert studies students in Ireland have the opportunity to undertake a Transition Year (TY). This combines continuing study of core subjects with a variety of extra-curricular activities designed to act as a bridge between the two academic programmes.

Diversity

At Portlaoise college the TY programme has, over the last few years, included a field trip to the Gambia where students and their teachers carry out work improving the facilities at a community school. This year they also provided a vital piece of equipment for a hospital in the same locality.

The list of students participating in this project is indicative of the diverse nature of the population of Portlaoise. Five of the sixteen students who participated have names suggesting their parents originated from Eastern Europe.

watwic-bright-tuqblk

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Saturday Sound-off: Who Stole my Country?

A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention yesterday. The first was in the Irish Times: a review of a book about prisoners of war in England during WWII and the way they were treated.

You might expect that, as soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for Britain’s enemies at the time, they would be shunned, spat at, feared. The reality was rather different. In fact, as the review’s author points out, “it wasn’t uncommon for friendships to be struck up and for POWs to be invited into civilians’ homes for Christmas lunch.”

german-prisoners-of-war-006

Prisoner of war camps in the UK: German PoWs somewhere in England bring in the harvest. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many were permitted to leave the camps in order to work on farms and in forestry projects alongside English (mainly female) workers. It reminded me of my own experience growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1940s and ’50s. There was a camp in the village which, at different times, held POWs and Polish refugees. One German and one Pole each married local girls and set up homes next door to each other in tied cottages on the farm where both worked.

Their children attended the local school. As a schoolboy I often worked on the same farm and got to know both men.The young woman who married the German POW had a younger brother the same age as me who became my best man at my 1963 wedding.

Values

And then I discovered the other article, in The Guardian, about European citizens, skilled workers resident in Britain for decades, who are returning to the continent, some with their British spouses and all saddened by last year’ Brexit vote and its aftermath in which so many of them were made to feel unwelcome. It made me wonder what has become of the country of which I used to be proud, the country of whose values my father fought and died for.

From being a place that welcomed all comers and extended the hand of friendship to enemy POWs, it has become a place in which many want to shut themselves off from the rest of Europe and embrace the same nationalistic fervour that destroyed Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and which the parents of my generation sacrificed so much to overthrow.

Have the people who voted ‘leave’ not studied history? Do they not realise that, right across Europe, we share more than a thousand years of common history? Admittedly, it was a relationship often characterised by the struggle for domination between the members of the land owning aristocracy. But it seemed for a while, in the 1950s and ’60s, that, having emerged from two terrible world wars, we understood that co-operation was better than conflict. Social liberalism trumped nationalism and the majority of us understood that it was better to share the product of our labours with people like ourselves wherever they were born.

Doomed

What happened? How did so many ordinary British voters come to believe that the EU, and those of its citizens who chose to make their homes in Britain, were responsible for every symptom of their country’s economic failure? Why did Cameron and the other leaders of the Remain campaign embark on a doomed quest to scare people into voting to remain in the EU? Why did the media not give much greater attention to the words of men like Lord Ashdown who made the arguments that mattered with such passion?

I wrote several posts ahead of the vote pointing out the folly of what was being proposed. Now the case for leaving is beginning to unravel as the real implications of extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together in mutually beneficial endeavours, from aviation safety to radioactive isotopes for medical use, become apparent. If only more attention had been paid to these things in May and June last year perhaps the vote would have been different. They certainly strengthen the case for a second vote once the details of the deal are published.