John Downing

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Kenny can still get payback even if Barroso thinks we're ungrateful

John Downing

Published 23/12/2013|02:30

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European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso shakes hands with Enda Kenny
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso shakes hands with Enda Kenny

THOSE phone calls from Dublin usually came during a lull in a long-running big national scandal which gripped public opinion in Ireland.

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Over a decade spent reporting EU affairs from Brussels for this newspaper through the 1990s, I got them about half a dozen times in total.

"Can you do a piece about what they think of us over there. How all this carry-on looks from the outside?" was the gist of the requests.

The real answer is that 'they over in Europe' rarely, if ever, bother thinking about us.

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's late-night outburst against Ireland last week was a major exception.

It is clear that the Portuguese head of the policy-guiding Commission had been giving us quite a lot of thought, much of it not especially positive, as he gave vent to strong sentiments in a most non-EU way.

Mr Barroso's remarks have been read chiefly as a reversal for Enda Kenny's ongoing campaign to get payback on some of the billions pumped into the banking system at the EU's behest since 2010. But this may well be overstating things.

Let's get a couple of things quickly out of the way here. First off, Barroso is on his way out of town, after two reasonably good five-year stints in office, and will be gone by next summer.

At all events, the Commission President does have considerable influence within the EU system and the unique body he heads has considerable direct powers in some areas.

But when it comes to the bank debt issue he, or his successor, is far from being the key person. It is the governments via the prime ministers and finance ministers who will eventually call this one -- or not as the case may be.

But Barroso's outburst can tell us things about how we are seen within the EU -- and how we see the EU. We could all do well to think about these things as an important year of economic progress for Ireland draws to a close.

There are good grounds for saying that the man was miffed at not being included in the bailout exit doings in Dublin 10 days ago.

The Government decision to not have any 'troika supervisors' about the place at the marking of an end to three years of close economic supervision was valid.

Hindsight, that marvellous thing, suggests, however, that the Government could have included the EU in some other way. There are also questions about the tone and timing of some criticisms of EU officials by Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Against that, Barroso missed the target by some distance in trying to hang the crisis across the eurozone in 2007/2008 mainly on recklessness in the Irish bank system.

It is true that the Irish banks did play a big role -- but they did not upend the entire currency system which was already pretty flawed from inception and was being engulfed by a global collapse.

Barroso would have been nearer the mark had he said: "You created the vast bulk of these problems -- now you may sort them out. We have done all we can so far."

Given his job, it is unlikely that he could acknowledge the very poor response of leading eurozone governments to the ongoing crisis. That is a simple and undisputed fact.

But if you stand well back and assess the underlying Barroso sentiment you can detect a feeling that he finds Dublin ungrateful. Let's bear in mind that, as a seasoned politician, Barroso knows that gratitude is a political white blackbird.

In essence, the man was, to my view, saying: Ireland, your ingratitude is at an unacceptable level. It goes right back to the view that Ireland, a little more than most other member states, has at times a poor concept of how to play the game. It is a thought worth holding on to as we continue business as usual into 2014.

The professionals who man Ireland's EU embassy in Brussels and the other key embassies in Europe know that Ireland's sense of grievance at being refused the right to deny payment to bank bondholders in 2011 is futile. But the increasing acceptance across the world that this was an error does help reinforce a logical case.

The Taoiseach is right to keep a tight hold on his general acknowledgement of Ireland as a special case by his EU counterparts at a summit on June 29, 2012.

He is right to concede that this is a very hard case to win.

But those who insist that Mr Kenny is already beaten on retrospective bank compensation do not know any more in reality than those who argue there is still hope.

The history of these EU campaigns shows that the most intrepid battler can in fact defy the odds. The Government must persist and be ready for those rare occasions when they do actually think about us over there in Europe.

Irish Independent

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