News & Media

Our global challenges of Migration, Climate Change, and Economic Inequality

22 November 2019

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

­Speaking at the annual Labour Youth conference in Waterford city tonight, Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin outlined his views on the major international issues impacting on the world outside the EU.

He noted the slowdown in the advance of democracy, and said the three challenges that Labour parties must be prepared to lead on are migration, climate change and economic inequality.

Brendan said:

"At the outset, I would like to thank Patrick Ahern for his very successful year as Chairperson of Labour Youth.

I’d also like to acknowledge the work of everyone who has been involved in all of Labour Youth’s many activities, including Executive members: Alex, Evin, Fintan, Jake, Olivia and Sarah.

My thanks also to Aideen Blackwood in Head Office for her support to Labour Youth.

You are the future of our party.

I look to you to take leadership roles, not just in Labour, but in our country.

I would also like to thank you for everything you are doing to support our four excellent bye-election candidates.

Whether you have been canvassing in person with Duncan, George, Joanna and John, or whether you have been spreading the word by sharing their social media, it all helps.

Please keep it up for the final week of the campaign.

Less than two weeks ago, I set out Labour’s agenda for the bye-elections and for the next general election.

We offer practical policies on housing, healthcare, work, childcare and climate change as part of Labour’s commitment to build an equal society.

I will continue to repeat Labour’s message all the way to the general election.

But I’m sure Labour Youth have heard and understood the message.

So rather than repeat my Conference speech this evening, I will take the opportunity to say a few words about what is going on around the world, especially outside of Europe’s borders.

The 21st century began on an optimistic note.

For the very first time, democracies outnumbered authoritarian states.

By 2015, 3.9 billion people lived in nearly one hundred democratic states around the world, compared to 3.2 billion people living under various forms of authoritarianism.

Hundreds of millions have left poverty, and education fis improving nearly everywhere.

This is the progress we want to see continue.

Labour is the party of peace and solidarity with people around the world.

We want all governments to respond to the needs of their people,

to recognise their human rights,

and to ensure that everyone has education, healthcare and decent jobs.

But if democratic rule-of-law and economic inclusion are our benchmarks, we still have a long way to go.

The advance of democracy has slowed down, and in some cases reversed.

Democracy in Russia and Turkey is under serious strain, and whether these countries strengthen democratic rule-of-law will be highly influential.

What’s worse, fair elections and the law are under serious pressure in some of the oldest democracies.

As one analyst, Gideon Rose, puts it:

“Centralization of power in the executive, politicization of the judiciary, attacks on independent media, the use of public office for private gain—the signs of democratic regression are well known”.[1]

What’s new is that we are seeing all these things at once in the United States under Donald Trump, and in the United Kingdom under Boris Johnson.

But it would be a mistake to just blame Trump and Johnson.

Regression in long-established democracies cannot be simply due to one person coming to power. Trump and Johnson are the symptoms of much deeper problems.

Democracy has advanced in waves around the world.

At pivotal historical moments, people around the world have pushed to overcome unjust rule.

This happened at periods throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and most recently in the Arab Spring uprisings eight years ago.

But the important thing to know about this theory is that each wave of democracy is followed by a counter-wave.

At every step on the road towards greater freedom and democracy, authorities and vested interests have pushed back against the people’s demands.

The failure of democracy to consolidate in most North African and Middle Eastern countries is a recent example of this, with the brutal civil wars in Libya and Syria being the starkest examples.

But the same pattern can be seen in places like Bolivia, Myanmar and Hong Kong.

And anti-democratic actions are not unique to developing countries.

As we remember the death of John F Kennedy, on this date 56 years ago, we might remember these words of his:

“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”

What happened in the United States since the mid-1970s, even before Regan was elected, was a push to limit the power of trade unions, to cut taxes and to deregulate finance.

This ultimately permitted the accumulation of wealth by a very small number of individuals and corporations, while average wages stagnated in real terms.

Some social rights have advanced in the US in recent decades, but others have been pushed back.

The politicised Supreme Court has made some outrageously anti-democratic decisions, such as that spending as much money as you like to influence elections is a form of “free speech”,

or that corporations have the same rights as “persons” when it comes to spending money during elections.

In the UK, the same deregulation of the economy was slower, but a similar pattern emerges of corporations becoming less subject to democratic control.

Part of the UK economy is captive to the power of financial corporations in the City of London.

The British press is highly partisan; and taxation, public services and the EU are routinely demonised, rather than seen as a means to achieve a more equal society where everyone’s basic needs are met.

A good deal of what is occuring in the world today can be understood in terms of the centuries-long struggle of people to institute impartial rule of law, recognition of rights, and regulation of the economy to ensure prosperity is widely shared.

Our struggle, in other words.

The oppression of the legitimate demands of the people of Palestine is another example that we all know well.

The recent decision by Iran to shut down the Internet for over 90% of its people is a clear attack on their ability to communicate with one another and to organise.

Many authoritarian regimes are looking on in interest to see how Iran does this.

The basic freedoms of access to information, free speech and free association are all essential for democracy.

If authorities can cut these off online, they will control an important front in the struggle for democracy.

I could go on, but you get the point.

The same forces are at work in every country.

There are always elites who will suppress dissent.

While many corporations and the people in them are genuinely pro-democracy, there are always powerful vested interests who want to chip away at workers rights, at environmental restrictions or at safety standards that limit their ability to make money.

Deregulation or restrictions on people’s rights all add up, and over time they dilute or suppress democracy and human rights.

We can never take democracy for granted, and we have to keep pushing for more democracy, including more democratic control over the economy.

It is impossible in one short set of remarks to do justice to all that is happening around the world.

But three things we must preserve at all costs are peace, the rule of law, and genuinely democratic elections.

And three challenges that Labour parties must be prepared to lead on are migration, climate change and economic inequality.

On peacebuilding, Labour supports Ireland’s tradition of military neutrality as part of an international system based around the United Nations.

The UN system is far from perfect, but there is no credible alternative.

Ireland is currently bidding for a seat on the UN Security Council, but what is the point unless our representative is going to advocate reform and improvement in how the UN functions, and challenge the failings of the international order.

For example, I am disgusted by the betrayal by President Trump of their Kurdish allies by allowing Turkey to take unilateral military action in Syria.

On an operational level, we support the participation of our Defence Forces in UN missions, such as their current deployment in Congo, Lebanon and Western Sahara.

But Labour recently opposed their deployment to Mali.

The rule of law takes time to build, and it can never be taken for granted.

When the rule of law breaks down, the consequences for society can be catastrophic.

Sadly, we keep seeing this happen in Latin America.

A succession of socialist Presidents have done enormous good in terms of social and economic reforms, but they have failed to create a robust rule of law that endures beyond their time in office.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales ignored a referendum result blocking him from running for election, and democratic politics collapsed.

Protestors have been attacked by state forces, and an opposition senator has not only declared herself interim president, but she has brought in sweeping right-wing changes in policy, kicked out hundreds of Cuban doctors and reintroduced Catholic rituals at public events, despite Bolivia’s secular constitution.

Politicians on all side failed to take responsible steps to calm the situation and to restore rule of law.

With that leadership vacuum, the military stepped in.

Democratic elections in every country are under attack.

From “fake news” online to partisan media organisations, politics has been warped by bias and misinformation.

A litany of lies were deliberately spread by pro-Brexit campaigners, including through illegal spending.

The current British Prime Minister has built his political career on a mountain of lies and contradictions.

But it doesn’t seem to matter.

The situation in the United States is worse.

And in many European countries, far-right parties are getting significant shares of the vote, in part due to anti-migrant and racist misinformation.

These toxic messages is getting to people in Ireland too, and it is warping people’s perception of reality, especially in relation to Muslims, asylum seekers and other minorities.

I have called on all party leaders to take a zero-tolerance approach to any member of their parties who crosses the line, and I will continue to do so.

Labour parties must lead on fact-based policies on migration.

The number of asylum applications in Europe last year was half the number applying in 2015 or 2016, at the height of war in Syria.

A half of one percent of them applied in Ireland.

With conflicts and human rights abuses going on in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia, there should be no doubt that we can and should offer safe refuge to the roughly 3,000 people a year who ask for our help and who will make great contributions to our society.

We also have to confront some uncomfortable truths.

Many asylum seekers end up on unsafe vessels in the Mediterranean, after paying tens of thousands of euro to people smugglers, because the European Union has put aviation companies under pressure not to permit asylum seekers to board, even though this flouts international law and our human rights commitments.

We have closed the door on easier routes into Europe, without any proper process to judge who is or is not a legitimate asylum seeker.

This forces people to take extraordinary risks, and to pay extortionate costs to criminals, all in the hope of finding a safe place to live and to raise their children.

Just this week, we have seen 16 people – including 2 minors – found in a container on a ship coming into Rosslare Harbour.

It is confirmed they are Kurdish refugees from Iraq or Iran.

Ireland is not immune to the horror of people smuggling.

We must change the root causes that drive so many migrants to Europe.

I have called for a Marshall Plan of investment in Europe’s Neighbourhood by the European Union.

This is one reason why we must redouble our efforts to achieve the agreed target for Development Aid of 0.7% of GNI.

We must also halt the policies that are rapidly creating a Fortress Europe surrounded by physical and legal walls to keep out our neighbours.

Developed countries such as in Europe generate most of the greenhouse gases that are changing weather patterns across the globe.

Ireland has among the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person in Europe.

While we look in horror at the destruction of the Amazon or at giant construction projects in the developing world, the truth is that we in developed countries must take ownership of the problem of climate change.

We must examine how

our demand for resources,

our trade deals

and our domestic corporation tax policies,

all fuel an unsustainable global economy.

Our challenge is to lead on new industrial techniques, renewable energy and creating jobs and lifestyles that are sustainable enough that we can – as social democrats – present a pathway for every person to have an acceptable standard of living.

As a movement for global justice and equality, Labour parties must lead on finding solutions to climate change that don’t leave people stuck in poverty, including across the developing world.

Finally, one of the greatest challenges is still economic inequality.

The surge in democracy in the 1990s was due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withering away of the main competitor to Western Capitalism.

But rather than this leading to The End of History,[2] as some prematurely suggested, the world discovered that Capitalism on its own is no guarantee of democracy.

On the contrary, Capitalism since the 1990s is associated with the growth of income and wealth inequality.

This is apparent everywhere.

Half the world’s wealth is now held by one percent of people.

People’s economic disempowerment helps explain Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right.

Meanwhile, China has shown that authoritarian capitalism works.

It is no longer axiomatic that capitalism will bring about democracy.

Some commentators point out that “The collective economic might of authoritarian powers now outweighs that of advanced liberal democracies.”[3]

Our challenge is to articulate a convincing alternative to deregulated capitalism, and to democratise the authoritarian structure that lies at the heart of our market economies.

The immediate task of Labour parties, not just in Ireland but in every country, is to push for the re-regulation of the private economy,

the strengthening of trade unions, co-operatives and other forms of workplace democracy,

and to retake control of the State as an instrument of social progress, directly through its enterprises as well as indirectly through its regulation of labour, environment and other standards.

Internationalism and global solidarity have always been at the heart of the Labour Party, and it is important that we continue to support those who have been betrayed within their own countries as well as those whose country is subject to geo-political forces beyond their control.

Week to week, month to month, we are naturally focused on the domestic political agenda.

But we can never forget that we are part of a global movement for democracy and economic equality."

[1] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-04-16/democracy-dying

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history

[3] Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa cited in https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-04-16/democracy-dying