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Saturday 30 August 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Euro crisis is too critical for political point-scoring

Fionnan Sheahan

Published 17/05/2010 | 05:00

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Brian Cowen was pretty slow to read the Lisbon Treaty, but he's quick off the mark to put the boot into the parties who helped him get the referendum passed.

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Eight months after a concerted effort by the main political parties and non-political groups, the Taoiseach expressed his gratitude to Fine Gael by questioning their integrity on EU matters and describing them as a "so-called pro-European Union party".

Cowen was very glad of Fine Gael's "so-called" pro-Europeanism last September.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten, though, and the Fianna Fail leader couldn't resist the opportunity to have a kick after Fine Gael's alarmist rhetoric on the latest EU budgetary scrutiny plans.

Cowen is a fan of putting things in context. He should recall, therefore, in the early parts of 2008, when Enda Kenny pleaded with then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and latterly Cowen himself, to give an indication when the Lisbon referendum would be held.

Learning the lessons of the Nice debacle, Fine Gael and the Labour Party recognised nothing could be taken for granted and wanted to get their 'Yes' campaigns up and running.

While Ahern was busy with his resignation lap of honour and Cowen was parading himself around his home county, Fine Gael was holding Lisbon information meetings.

Throughout the campaign, Kenny set aside his differences with the Government and Fine Gael put its money where its mouth was to amply resource its campaign. The party's contribution to the campaign was generally positive.

The same cannot be said of another party's contribution.

Did a Fine Gael leader say he hadn't read the treaty?

Did a Fine Gael deputy leader not know the number of commissioners?

Did a Fine Gael European Commissioner say you'd want to mad to read the treaty?

Passing the second referendum was identified by Cowen as a key part of the country's economic recovery strategy.

Defeat would also have severely undermined Cowen's leadership and jeopardised his coalition's future.

The opposition parties co-operated with the Government and put every effort into getting it passed in the interests of the country.

And yet, on the back of a single ill-advised statement from Fine Gael, Cowen questions their European credentials.

Responding to Fine Gael's over-the-top response to European Commission budgetary scrutiny proposals, Cowen typically chose to ignore the central issue of what was actually being mooted from Brussels and its impact on national sovereignty.

"I think everyone recognises that was a pretty clumsy attempt by a so-called pro- European Union party to raise a hare about a discussion that has yet to take place," he told Sam Smyth on Today FM.

Cowen's comments are not worthy of him because he is well aware of the importance of Irish political parties' standing in Europe.

To his credit, after becoming leader, Cowen dealt with the embarrassing credibility problem Fianna Fail had in Brussels, which Ahern failed to tackle.

Despite internal objections, led by poll-topping MEP Brian Crowley, Cowen manoeuvred Fianna Fail out of the Union for Europe of the Nations, an obscure and conservative European Parliament group with several Eurosceptic and far-right members.

Fianna Fail is a member of the more prominent European Liberal Party (ELDR), where it gets the added influence without having to support its social positions.

What Cowen's remarks illustrate is an immaturity in genuinely engaging on European issues. Anybody who deigns to question or criticise EU proposals is unfairly branded a Eurosceptic.

Richard Bruton's warning of a threat to our low corporation tax from the European Commission's draft proposal was surprisingly irresponsible for the simple reason that it jumped far too many speculative hurdles in one go.

Fine Gael's central point, which it failed to adequately communicate, was to query the Government's position on the commission proposals and contrast the inadequacy of budget preparations in the Dail with the idea of other European countries playing an earlier role in the development of a budget.

There were also clear indications, widely reported, that the plan would face opposition from France and Germany as it would challenge their national sovereignty.

Cowen provided no answer on his position on the proposals last week, largely because the Government was waiting to see which way the wind would blow.

The country's pro-European parties need to use their influence to ensure Ireland and Europe's best interests are served by the major decisions to be made on economic scrutiny.

Cowen and Kenny must avoid the point-scoring on EU matters and work together.

The euro crisis, following on from the banking meltdown, has provided those with an alleged federalist agenda with a prime opportunity to devolve powers to Brussels.

How budgets are formulated in Athens, Dublin, Lisbon, Rome and Madrid, does have an impact in Berlin, Paris and vice versa, so greater interest will be taken in European capitals of what is going on in their neighbours' fiscal policy.

No less an honest broker and EU affairs expert than former Taoiseach John Bruton said the EU proposals would mean the commission examining budgets to prevent overspending and to ensure countries were not dependent on one sector.

Reasonable questions need to be raised in cool public debates on these developments.

Cowen has not been able to say if another EU referendum in coming down the tracks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly believes changes to the EU treaties are needed to enforce the budget discipline rules more strictly.

Before his term as Taoiseach ends, Cowen might yet need the help -- again -- of "so-called pro-European" parties to explain to the public why they are being asked to vote for another sensitive package to strengthen EU fiscal rules.

Irish Independent

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