Economic growth is small comfort - We’re not out of the woods yet

IT IS not always possible for a prominent public figure to provide an Apologia pro Vita Sua — a defence of one’s life — in convivial surroundings and amidst the company of former colleagues, some of them well-wishers.

But that was the opportunity offered to former taoiseach Brian Cowen when he used his honorary doctorate acceptance speech to deliver a few home truths about EU policy during the great financial meltdown of 2007 onwards and the death of the Celtic Tiger in 2010

Mr Cowen apologised for the hardships created by the loss of a quarter of a million jobs, many of them in construction, but in a triumph of timing reminiscent of Napoleon’s observation that he preferred lucky generals, came the announcement that the pace of growth in the construction sector in Dublin is at its strongest for 16 years.

As in the UK, the extent to which you can use the economic performance of the capital as a proxy for the general well-being of the nation is a dubious precept, but throughout Ireland, it is clear the property market is on the move again.

The extent to which young adults can afford to be part of it is another matter, a worry underlined in another set of statistics released yesterday which showed that the number of young adults living at home has nearly doubled in the 10 years to 2016.

This may be because they like Mammy’s cooking or because someone else pays for the sports subscription channels, but it is a significant change of behaviour from previous generations and one driven by economic necessity in an era where wages have stagnated but prices have not.

Mr Cowen is correct in his criticism of the treatment by the EU (essentially Germany, France, and what used to be known as the Benelux group) of the smaller and Latin European nations and the influence of the euro currency system and the troika. But wrong in his analysis that we are out of the woods.

Yesterday’s warning from the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that trade talks are unlikely to take place this autumn because of lack of clarity from Britain on the preconditions of citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the size of the divorce settlement (the one for which Boris Johnson says Brussels should “go whistle”) are an illustration that timescales are tightening.

So, too, is the pronouncement at Westminster that free movement will end “as a point of principle” in March next year although it seems likely to operate in practice until at least 2022.

If this continues, there is no chance of meeting the Brexit timetable and some temporary arrangement will have to be put in place. It will also be time to stop pretending that free movement of labour is an issue which is only of worry to insular and/or racist Brits while the reality is that it is a prime concern in every country of the union.

Just as the British might have to suck up some unpalatable aspects of a Brexit negotiation, so a revisiting of the rules for internal migration might be the price to pay for stability.


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