Discordant harmony

From a simple humanitarian perspective, it’s easy to be outraged at some countries’ response to the current refugee crisis. The UK’s response is, I think, simply shameful. And, once again, from a straightforwardly humanitarian view, Hungary’s response is both cruel and brutal. These sentiments are easy to feel, and as easy to express.

But from a different perspective, the ‘refugee crisis’ throws light on some of the fault lines inherent in, and dangers attending, the project known as the European Union (EU) as currently conceived.

The EU has as one of its core aims the ‘Harmonisation’ of policies and practices across its member states. Though a term used in particular in respect of trade relations – the aim of removing trade ‘barriers’ – it is applicable to a wide swath of policies agreed or imposed on its members.

Interesting word ‘harmonisation’. The image it conjures, and no doubt is designed to evoke, is that of unity, one formed of divergent tones, pitches, individual and unique features to become, as the dictionary has it, ‘in agreement’, ‘justly proportioned’, ‘concordant’, ‘congruous’.

And who wouldn’t wish to be ‘in harmony’ with one’s neighbours?

But, as deployed by the EU, ‘harmonisation’ is a power-infused term that aims, across policy areas, to ‘iron out’ – now there’s a term. My use here, not EU’s as far as I know – difference to create, not a featureless policy landscape, but one flattened into conformity with precious little regard to the individual characteristics of member countries, their histories, economies, their internal tensions and divergences. The most recent example of this is of course the imposition of neo-liberal economic prescriptions on Greece, a policy almost certain to fail and, in the process, induce more misery on the Greek people.

This inherent impetus to harmonise, or brutally impose, ‘standard’, one-size-fits-all policies on divergent, distinct entities ultimately creates more problems than it solves and is based on the exercise of power. So, take Hungary and the refugee crisis. Is it really helpful to impose an externally generated refugee quota on it when, perhaps for deep, longstanding cultural reasons, which may well not all be noble, it simply cannot be moved to be welcoming? And would imposition of a quota benefit the refugees caught within it as they attempt to settle into what may well turn out to be an ungenial place – no doubt exacerbated by the fact that their presence is the result of imposition, not invitation by a willing host? (The UK’s position is entirely different to that of Hungary. Our Government’s policy is, to repeat, simply shameful.)

Now, this exercise of asymmetrical power is all pervasive, affecting a wide range of policy areas. There are few hiding places. So far as economic policy is concerned, and on which I now briefly focus, the dominant ideology is that of neo-liberalism, an ideology that conceives of people, states and other entities through the prism of free market economics. In this sphere, ‘harmonisation’ means the removal of ‘trade barriers’ – tariffs, divergent national standards on products and services – the better to promote free trade. It also means inter-bloc harmonisation of free trade policies, hence the pressure on states and blocs to agree a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) a move that is deeply suspect.

Thus, sneeze in an EU country, and a standardised US, Canadian, Australian handkerchief can be proffered to wipe your nose. But only a standardised one.

And this brings me, by only a slightly circuitous route, to the question of play equipment and surfacing standards. The detail of concerns about them – HIC values on surfacing, various other aspects – may be the substantive content that discomforts many of us, but danger lies in what may turn out to be a naiveist approach to addressing such issues. The danger is that submission is made to rigged courts, the bodies that promulgate standards, bodies substantially dominated by industry and commercial interests operating within structures whose overriding purpose is economic. Saying this in no way diminishes the contribution of those on standard-making bodies who give not a jot about free trade and are there for entirely benign motives.

Particular issues may be ‘won’ on appeal to the standard-making bodies, but without significant structural, systemic change the long term prognosis does not seem to me positive for new issues will arise time and again.

In the absence of changes in process, composition, remit and organisational structure the unfunded, fragmented, time-starved civil society world of play will find it hard to counter forces and interests more powerful than they. So take note, Standards are not simply a technical matter. They are political, and to this we must attend.    This is a matter to which it will be necessry to return.

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