Text of address by Marian Harkin MEP when she opened the Credit Union Summer School at University College Cork on Friday, May 25th, 2012
For the last few days in Strasbourg things looked fairly bleak. Many in the Parliament called on European leaders to take bold steps involving a Redemption Fund mechanism to help mutualise the debt and allow countries to borrow at the same rate of interest. We also spoke of a roadmap towards Eurobonds. But the 18th crisis summit since the crisis started in 2009 simply told us that no decision would be taken until June. That of course means that the Greek elections will probably be over and the unfortunate and bewildered Greek citizens will have cast the dice.
Over the last few days in particular, the newspapers are carrying pretty grim predictions of a GREXIT (short for Greek Exit) and indeed in the Financial Times yesterday alongside the usual articles suggesting that it’s in Greece’s best interests to leave the Euro, I came across 2 harrowing pieces on the social and human impacts right now being felt in Greece. One, on the fact that Greeks are being forced to pay full price for essential medicines because the State Health System has run out of cash, to pay pharmacies for supplying prescriptions and the other story on how the economic crisis is hitting the vulnerable with rare disorders/diseases. Given that such diseases are particularly costly to treat, they are in the front line for cuts. One particular family who were receiving €4,200 per month for special dressing for their 2 year old daughter skin blistering disorder are currently not getting anything and fear she will die. It’s not often you read two such stories in the Financial Times but in between all the bond spreads, the credit default swaps, the hedge funds – were sandwiched these two human stories and it was devastating to read them.
But here this morning we are not without hope – because here you bring another version to a trouble world.
You bring the not for profit version, you bring a voluntary ethos, you bring a human and humane face to financial transactions. You value the person, the family and the community and for that very reason you must be valued. You must be supported. Your community, your not for profit ethos must not only be preserved, it must be promoted.
You provide a counter weight, a counterbalance to the naked greed of unfettered markets and my regret is that your power, your influence is not more pervasive and that, unfortunately, it does not inform policy decisions as often as it should.
I have had the privilege of working with the Credit Union movement over a number of years, indeed I have borrowed from the Credit Union for several elections fortunately it turned out to be a good investment!! My efforts have mainly been in a supportive role at home, lobbying to ensure that legislation was proportionate and appropriate and indeed similarly at European level.
It’s also important to ensure greater visibility for Credit Unions and other not for profit institutions. You will be aware that the movement is strong in just a few European countries but Irish Credit Unions have been instrumental in helping expansion in other EU countries. Indeed a few weeks ago I attended a function in Dublin where I met a member of African Credit Unions members and learned of the very practical and valuable links between Irish credit unions and credit unions in several African countries.
I was very impressed – not only do people give of their time to the movement in Ireland, they reach out because they know the value of Credit Unions and the positive impact they can have for families and communities.
They understand the need for financial education and they work actively to promote financial inclusion. I was genuinely impressed with the ability of Irish Credit Unions to look beyond themselves and serve others.
One of the initiatives I have been involved with at EU level was representing my group at the setting up of the first EU Microfinance Initiative. Indeed I facilitated a visit of Credit Unions to the Parliament to meet the Commission and the European Investment Fund to see if Credit Unions could become the microfinance providers for Ireland. Unfortunately because of the structure of Credit Unions that was not possible but I believe this is an area where Credit Unions can play a valuable role. This Microfinance Credit Facility and Guarantee Scheme is specifically aimed at those who are financially excluded – those for whom there is an automatic ‘No’ from the banks (unfortunately that seems to extend to the entire population in Ireland right now).
This fund is targeted at unemployed persons, at those at risk of becoming unemployed, at struggling micro-enterprises and particularly those in the social economy. Right now we are setting up a similar facility for the post 2014 period and once again I am representing my group in these negotiations. Maybe there may be some possibility of Credit Union involvement.
I know you are awaiting the Credit Union Bill and I hope it will allow the Credit Union movement to fully retain its ethos, not for profit, voluntary, democratic and local. Also any proposed legislation must be appropriate and proportionate and should serve to strengthen the movement.
I hope that it won’t make the Credit union movement pay either for the excesses and mistakes of other financial institutions or the current economic crisis in the context that the Credit Union movement was not a contributory factor but rather a counterbalancing one.
But equally Credit Unions have responsibilities. They need to manage change, to deliver for their members and to position themselves to assist Ireland and indeed the global economy recovery.
I do have one concern and it’s that we need to watch our mindset and the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Horrible, crazy, obscene mistakes have been made and sometimes the reaction is to batten down the hatches, use a one size fits all approach, be risk averse and respond with a centralised model.
Yes, the intentions are good we don’t want to repeat the obscene mistakes but balance must be maintained and a model that has stood the test of time and delivered cannot be pushed aside in a well meaning attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Everything, every single thing has context and that must always be central to any considerations.
We cannot impose models on institutions if they are not fully appropriate.
Any change must be managed in a fully co-operative manner not only respecting but sensitive to the totality of the enterprise and that should and must happen as a consequence of any new legislation.
Finally I started by speaking of the huge uncertainty in Europe but I want to finish by relating what is happening here today to how we can counter the uncertainty many people are experiencing.
We live in a globalised world. Events over which we have no control, our Governments have no control can and do impact very significantly on our lives. This is a very threatening situation for all of us and we sometimes feel like flotsam and jetsam being tossed on the waves with no foothold, no anchor. We need an anchor and in my view that can be provided by local action. When we access the needs of our local Community and respond to those needs in a real and meaningful way that helps to give us back control. It helps us to reclaim our space in our own place when we as volunteers can make a positive difference on a local level. We are no longer mere consumers taking what is fed to us by the media, the market or some politician looking for votes - instead we become actors in the broadest sense of that word.
We contribute, we make a difference. That’s what Credit Unions do and that why they must be supported and promoted.
Today I know I am in a place where good things are happening and good people are gathered and that's a good place to be.