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Friday, December 3, 2010

Will Ireland turn against Europe?

If the European Union wants to push Irish people into voting with their feet and leaving the club, it's doing a pretty good job. Seen from our perch on the western fringe of the continent, the joint European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund rescue package is an offence to reason. In fact, calling it a "bailout" or "aid plan" is an offence to language. Rescue package is an acceptable term, but only with the caveat that it's European banks and the euro currency being rescued. The one thing this deal will not do is save the Irish public from ruin.At this point, you're probably thinking: "Ireland may have to suffer but at least it will work, right?" Wrong.
The wheels are have started coming off the bailout bandwagon. Portugal is already wobbling and fears about about Spain. Now the so-called contagion has spread to Belgium and, apparently, France. Can anyone think of a cutsey name like PIIGS that adds France and Belgium to the list of countries having manners put on them?

As Phyllis Read of Kleinwort Benson said, the assault on the euro by bondholders will continue: “There’s always a benefit to someone in the market to push something one way or another,” she said.

Angela Merkel, meanwhile, has said that senior bondholders in Ireland's banks, including the glorified Ponzi scheme that is Anglo-Irish Bank, will have to take some losses. Good for you, Angela. What a pity, though, that you've only got around to saying this after we've thrown all of the money in the country into black hole and committed to similarly dispose of any money we might ever make in the future. Every economic commentator I've spoken to – and I've now spoken to more than I ever wanted to – has been saying one thing for months: burn the bondholders! How nice to have the mighty German chancellor on side… after the dodgy deal is done.

So, what we have here is an unjust, undemocratic and inequitable plan to skin the population of Ireland alive in order to pay off the debts of our idle rich. Debts to European banks.

Will we see a rise of antipathy toward the EU? I can only hope so – as long as it is critical and thoughtful scepticism. Call it pro-European scepticism, if you like. A concern that the EU is an undemocratic and unresponsive institution that wants to consolidate power in its corridors, tempered with the knowledge that European trade and co-operation are a good thing, that freedom of movement is our birthright and that Europeans do share a common culture, albeit in inchoate form.

From such a position we could start to ask what's good about the EU and what's bad. Perhaps even to question how and why certain decisions have been made.

For instance, why is it that no-one in the Irish elite ever noticed that having a common currency without a common division of labour, integrated economies and uniform taxation might not be such a hot idea? Quite simply because they see the EU as a handy way of jettisoning their authority, a fact that has been underscored by the Irish government, and even main opposition party, shrugging their collective shoulders about the recent ECB-IMF deal and saying "It woz Yurop wot done it!"

Ireland is not a eurosceptic nation by nature. Irish people, in general, recognise the benefits that EU membership has brought. Yes, it did reject both the Nice and Lisbon treaties, but in both cases the terms of the deals were the problem rather than a generalised anxiety about EU statehood as one sees at work in Britain. Frankly, most Irish people's thoughts on the EU start and end with: "It's dull".

Speaking for myself, I love the idea of European co-operation and I think the EU has its good sides. I even think – shock-horror! – that some European countries are culturally and socially streets ahead of my own heimat and that our economic problems really are a result of rank idiocy.

On the other hand, there is a real and growing sense of frustration with the EU's dead hand.

EU bureaucracy is legendary and the institution is horribly undemocratic. This has not gone unnoticed in Ireland. People were genuinely furious with being frogmarched into a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, a feeling that is only growing worse now in light of the European Central Bank's decision to beggar Ireland. After all, politicians from all of the mainstream political parties other than Sinn Féin told us that a vote for Lisbon was a vote for support from Europe. They didn't mention that the support on offer was the kind offered by a noose to a hanged man.

Frankly, it would please me to indulge in a little schadenfreude, lording it over the "Generation Yes" who told us that voting for Lisbon was the positive and progressive thing to do. The one thing stopping me, however, is the fact that I have to live on this septic isle and so "I told you so" is cold comfort.

Despite all the above, Ireland is not yet in danger of becoming eurosceptic in the British sense. The European Union as a concept has much to offer, even if many of us would like to see it reformed – with a hammer if possible.

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