Irene Oldfather: Isolationism is not the answer to EU problems

Europe is not without its flaws  it does need to change, adapt, improve and modernise. Picture: PA
Europe is not without its flaws  it does need to change, adapt, improve and modernise. Picture: PA
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A SHARED heritage and future goals bind us to the EU, says Irene Oldfather

I was not especially surprised to read the recent conclusions of Hansard Society Annual Audit of Public Attitudes to Politics which noted that “Scots were considerably more interested in and knowledgeable of politics compared to the rest of the UK population”.

This augurs well for the upcoming EU referendum. Scottish people will want to make an informed choice on 23 June, free from the rhetoric of the tabloid media. The problem that they face is that both “in” and “out” camp, can present valid and conflicting statistical evidence to support their respective cases which can be convincing and confusing in equal measure.

As former chair of the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee and a representative on the European Economic and Social Committee, I do admit to an intuitive but not blinding bias. My conclusion is better in than out.

Rather than present a plethora of facts and figures, a recent EESC conference in Manchester, asked speakers to reflect on What Matters to You?

What matters to me is the principle of a social Europe where economic progress can support social progress as a useful practice model that resonates well with the ethos of the third sector. Improving living and working conditions, reducing inequalities, providing opportunity for young people, social and geographic mobility, treating our older people and our more vulnerable people with dignity and respect underpin much of the current European agenda. The Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE) 2 Million Expert Voices election manifesto aspires to much of the above. Europe is a place where we can find common ground and common cause.

The European Economic and Social Committee of which I am a member is a bridge between civil society and Europe. It is a meeting place where the pragmatism and innovation of people and communities can be showcased across Europe. A recent report to the Dutch presidency on fighting poverty highlighted the Alliance’s National Link Worker Programme as a vital tool in improving outcomes in health and wellbeing for vulnerable people in some of our most deprived communities.

The Third Sector has a legitimate role in articulating and advocating a strong voice for disadvantaged groups. It can bring an independent perspective to European Policy debates and the opportunity to work at pan-European level has added significant weight to many initiatives. The EU’s support for action to combat discrimination based on disability, age, religion, ethnic group was the result of over 400 organisations from across Europe coming together to make the case – social protections which in Scotland and across the UK we value.

As well as the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, religion or disability, it is through the EU that we enjoy maternity and paternity leave, the right to paid holidays, the right not to have to work for more than 48 hours a week.

This is not what matters to everyone in this debate. There will be those who see these rules as burdens on business rather than principles of human decency. That is why the question What Matters to You? is important to consider as you reflect on how to vote.

Europe is not without its flaws – it does need to change, adapt, improve and modernise. Increased transparency and flexibility is important. We should be able to ensure a flexible geometry that allows member states to be involved at a pace that best suits. One size does not have to fit all.

We have now been in the EU for over 40 years and the choice is integration or isolation: looking to the future or anchoring to a past that no longer exists. The nations and regions of Europe have a shared heritage as well as their own identity and, with that, a commitment to democracy and equality. Whatever the challenges, in those shared values lie our greatest strength.

• Irene Oldfather, member of the UK delegation to the EESC