One of the old truisms, hackneyed or otherwise, promised that if you controlled the agenda for a meeting then you controlled the outcome of that meeting. After all, if you controlled what might be discussed you probably controlled what could be decided. Equally, if you can engineer the vocabulary of a debate then you’ve gone a long way to setting the atmosphere, the political context or objective, in which it will be conducted.
For the last number of years Government and EU measures designed to confront our unsustainable spending and consequent economic crisis have been, without any sense of irony, described as a kind “austerity”.
It is unquestionable that far too many Irish people, especially the 440,000 people without jobs and their dependants, are dealing with hard, grim circumstances but it is equally true that this remains one of the richest, most stable and secure societies in the world. Challenging and grey yes, but austere? Certainly not in how our parents — or most certainly our grandparents — might have understood the term.
Speaking in Berlin earlier this week German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her, and her country’s, exasperation when she was asked if she thought southern European countries could take much more German-ordered austerity. She dismissed the term, defending her, and her country’s, position by saying what we call austerity means, in German terms, balancing the books. One of the subtexts being that Germans pay their taxes because, unlike some of the Club Med countries, they recognise that not doing so leads to dysfunction and ultimately collapse. Another is that you can only live beyond your means for so long.
Though it’s impossible to believe that there is still someone in this country who does not realise the depth of our difficulties, there is still great, if not growing, opposition to any proposals designed to restore sanity and order to our public finances. Some of this is politically dishonest and shamefully opportunistic and has more to do with ambition than recovery.
We are still living beyond our means to the tune of about €12bn a year but whole swathes of the population insist “they have no more to give”, that the solution to the crisis cannot impinge further on them. It is not hard to imagine what kind of a reality check this might provoke from Frau Merkel, but it is a pity that we are still in a kind of denial, a kind of ah-sure-it’ll-be-alright-on-the-day delusion about the chasm between our income and our expenditure, or expressed in another way, between what is possible and what is not possible.
The German investors who fed our casino bankers’ gambling habit did us no favours and Merkel’s refusal to accept their role in our humiliation is difficult to stomach but there is a truth, an undeniable rationale in her directness, her unflinching and cold logic that might serve us well. If we don’t, it is still possible that we might have to find out what austerity is really like.