COLETTE BROWNE: Fiscal treaty referendum vote will be just an illusion of democracy

TOMORROW, the nation goes to the polls to decide the fate of the Fiscal Treaty and, whatever the result, at least we can imminently look forward to the end of one of the most unedifying political campaigns in recent memory.

Those on the yes side have warned us that Ireland’s precarious economic fortunes will deteriorate even further if the treaty is rejected, with the country precluded from accessing cheap credit via the ESM fund, while the no side has cautioned that accepting the treaty will do the exact same thing by forcing successive governments to implement a never-ending spiral of austerity measures that will ensure the economy never returns to growth.

Enda Kenny has opined that the referendum result is of more consequence than even a general election result, yet couldn’t be bothered to enter a TV studio to engage in a debate on the treaty, while those on the no side have tried to introduce so many extraneous issues into their campaign that one wonders if many of them have bothered to read the damn thing.

Variously, we were told that there would be no second referendum if this one was rebuffed, until Richard Bruton wandered off reservation and admitted that there probably would be; that the IMF would lend to us if the referendum was rejected until the no side finally admitted this was extremely unlikely; that investment would suddenly flow into the country if we vote yes even as growth forecasts are continually slashed by the Department of Finance, which last month admitted GNP will fall for the fifth consecutive year in 2012; while Declan Ganley insists that failing to ratify the treaty would somehow enable the country to eschew the tens of billions of private debt that Irish citizens are now responsible for repaying.

The mantra of “jobs and growth” has been the unashamed clarion call of the yes side despite the fact that the economic policies championed by leaders in Europe have led to record unemployment levels all over the region with no end to the eurozone crisis in sight, while the no side have consistently refused to tell us the identity of the benevolent benefactor that would step in to bail us out the next time if we reject the treaty tomorrow.

Michael Noonan has grown so desperate that he has insisted that signing the treaty is the only way the Germans will countenance the creation of eurobonds, widely seen as the only credible solution to the continuing chaos in Europe, despite the fact that the Germans have consistently said the idea is a total non-runner, and politically toxic.

Meanwhile, investors are clamouring to loan money to the Germans for free because they reckon the euro will cease to exist within the next two years and, when the whole house of cards eventually comes tumbling down, their money will be safely invested in Europe’s most valuable currency, the deutschmark. Those same investors will not be so eager to buy Irish bonds, no matter what the notional return, when the bailout expires next year.

The naked lies, shameless spin and blatant fear-mongering being employed by both sides in this debate means the confusion of the electorate, evidenced by the large numbers of remaining “don’t know” voters, is understandable. People’s apathy, which will be manifest in a very low turnout tomorrow, even more so as politicians grasp at increasingly ludicrous strawmen in an effort to discredit the fantastical claims of their opponents.

In case there is any lingering confusion about the reason that we are having this referendum in the first place, it should be remembered that it is simply an effort to appease the people who jealously guard the pursestrings of Europe, the Germans. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Understandably miffed at the disastrous turn the eurozone has taken, they want some kind of legally binding guarantee, backed up with stiff penalties, that countries will never again engage in the kind of unsustainable auction politics that have cast vast tracts of the continent into penury and bankruptcy.

Regrettably, the drafters of the treaty, in a desperate effort to assuage these concerns, were more concerned with giving a public smackdown to profligate PIIGS than devising a treaty that made any kind of economic sense. So, for reasons that have yet to be explained, the arbitrary fiscal measure included in the document is a rigid adherence to a structural deficit of 0.5% of GDP — despite the fact that no one is quite sure how to measure that figure, with every economist I have seen quoted on the issue denouncing its inclusion as reckless and stupid.

While Eamon Gilmore still laughably insists that Ireland put growth on the European agenda before François Hollande swept to victory in France, the truth is that Ireland, in all of this, is largely irrelevant. No one in Europe much cares for what we think about the manner in which the financial crisis has been dealt with, a fact that is evidenced every single day in the arrogant pronouncements made by EU bureaucrats about this country and the embarrassing level of sycophancy, masquerading as diplomacy, that our political leaders engage in while making doe-eyes at Angela Merkel in Brussels.

Ireland is seen as an irritant, an annoying pipsqueak that thought it was cleverer than everyone else when its government unilaterally signed the bank guarantee, to the universal horror of every other country in the eurozone, and now the European political leaders who warned of the folly of that decision back in 2008 are determined that we live with its consequences.

Nothing that happens tomorrow will change that. Whatever the outcome, we still be at the mercy of the troika, forced to subjugate ourselves every three months for the latest installment of the bailout funds that are required to run the country, and we will still be on the hook for the tens of billions of private debt that were so blithely assumed on our behalf by the last government and which the current Government proudly insists it will repay in full.

What we have tomorrow is the illusion of democracy — the delusion perpetuated by both sides that we have a choice at all about what to do or that we have some kind of remaining vestige of control over our economic destiny. We don’t and the wholesale adoption of Fianna Fáil’s economic policies by Labour and Fine Gael once they assumed office should be proof positive of that.

So, whichever side wins tomorrow, once 12 countries go ahead and ratify this treaty, and it comes into force, Ireland will be compelled to come on board — even if, in a fit of pique, we persist in the fantasy that we retain some degree of fiscal autonomy and reject the referendum tomorrow.

Ireland is too small to hold the EU to ransom — or even, as the aborted attempt to get a writedown on bank debt has shown, to bargain — and as long as they’re paying the bills, we’ll continue to dance to their tune.


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