Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fear used as weapon to put Irish public in their place on EU treaty

Walter Lippmann, an early theorist of “public relations”, did not have much time for democracy. In a 1927 book, he advocated that the “public be put in its place” in order that “each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd”.

Similar sentiments are often expressed by the EU elite. Sometimes, they’re even voiced in public. As Irish politicians and civil servants plotted with their German counterparts to avoid holding a referendum on the “fiscal compact” treaty, one minister in Dublin summed up the prevailing “wisdom”. Giving the people a say would not be a good idea, according to Leo Varadkar (the minister in question), because they might be motivated by “extraneous issues” like cutbacks to public services.

It takes some gall to describe cutbacks as an extraneous issue to a treaty designed to enshrine a commitment to austerity in the constitutions of most EU countries. But Varadkar spoke as if his view was the only rational one.

Now that the Irish government is reluctantly calling a referendum (on advice from the country’s attorney general), it is keeping the public in place with a tried and tested weapon: fear. No sooner had the decision to hold a referendum been announced than Varadkar’s colleague Lucinda Creighton was warning that a No vote would send a “negative signal” to investors. The implicit threat was that there would be an exodus of foreign-owned companies unless everyone obeyed their masters.


I realise that this makes me a very sad anorak but I’ve been following Ireland’s referendums on EU treaties for 20 years now. Fear has been a weapon of the Yes side during most, if not all, of the campaigns preceding those votes. But this is the first time that I recall it being used from the get-go. Usually, the establishment has the decency to wait until the date of polling day has been announced before it tries to induce terror in the electorate.

The deep irony behind Varadkar’s comments is that it is the Yes side which has a habit of dragging “extraneous issues” into the debate.

In 2008, the Irish said No to the Lisbon treaty. To bully them into changing their minds in a second referendum on the same treaty the following year, the Yes side ran a 10 million euro promotional blitz. Its core argument was that accepting Lisbon was necessary to preserve jobs. Yet as Karen Devine, a lecturer in Dublin City University recently pointed out, jobs were only mentioned once in a treaty with 91,666 words. And that reference wasn’t even in the core text of the treaty but in a protocol annexed to it.

The Green Party, which was then in government, tried to claim that the treaty would help the battle against climate change. And yet only six of those 91,666 words dealt with that most urgent problem.

Unsavoury characters

It is true that some opponents of EU treaties are unsavoury characters. I would be happy if the anti-abortion brigade does not get involved in the campaign on the fiscal treaty. And I hope that Nigel Farage and his hedge fund owning chums in the UK Independence Party realise that the best thing they can do to help the No side in Ireland is to stay away from the country. These are only my wishes, however. As a democrat, I wouldn’t dream of trying to muzzle those people, no matter how fervently I despise their right-wing agendas.

One encouraging sign is that there is a real possibility this time around that the trade union movement will urge a No vote. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has not yet decided its position and in previous EU referendum campaigns it has tended to join the Labour Party on the Yes side. Yet there are strong indications that ICTU will break ranks with Labour, the junior partners in the ruling coalition.

Paul Sweeney, an economic adviser with ICTU, gave a brilliant presentation to the European affairs committee in the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) last month. “The treaty is an attempt to outlaw Keynesian economics and stop any fiscal stimulus as a counter to recession,” he said.

That is the nub of the matter: the treaty is the work of ideological fundamentalists. The rigid deficit rules contained in it would deny governments the option of heeding the advice of John Maynard Keynes by increasing expenditure in times of a downturn. If even better ways of coping with recession are found, they too would be forbidden. At the behest of Angela Merkel, the treaty will have “eternal validity”.

Michael Taft, an economist with the Irish trade union UNITE, has demolished the core argument made by the treaty’s supporters: that it would deter the kind of behaviour that led to the current crisis. The treaty’s most important provision relates to a limit on structural deficits of 0.5% of gross domestic product. By the European Commission’s estimates, Ireland had an average structural surplus (not a deficit) of 0.5% between 2000 and 2007, meaning it was considered “fiscally responsible” in Brussels, as Taft argues.

The economic crisis was not caused by the government spending too much on public services. It was caused by lax regulation of banks and other gambling addicts in the financial services industry. The EU’s fiscal treaty ducks that problem. It punishes the hard-pressed, not the brass-necked. That’s why it must be opposed.

●First published by New Europe, 18-24 March 2012.

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