Tuesday 10 December 2019

Brendan Keenan: It's not just another vote on an EU treaty, this time it's personal

Unlike previous referendums we have had visited upon us, this week's vote -- set against a backdrop of EU crisis, will have a deep effect on all of us

Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

ASTRANGE thing happened last week. Two people -- one an eminent intellectual, the other, well... not -- asked me how I was going to vote.



I can't remember that happening before, which is a tribute to the good sense of Irish voters, intellectual or otherwise.

This time, it's different. The referendum is taking place in the middle of the most extraordinary crisis. Yet the crisis has barely surfaced in the campaign.

The kindest explanation for this apparently bizarre state of affairs is that the Irish vote will make no difference to the course of events, so why get involved with stuff we cannot influence?

Even that fairly cynical view may be wrong this time. Ireland's interests are clearly deeply involved with the outcome of the euro crisis. Yet the habit of seeing those interests almost entirely as the collection of money, means the debate has almost never moved beyond the question of whether bailout loans will be available if the fiscal treaty is not ratified.

A less kind view is that the refusal to look at the deep, complex issues thrown up by the crisis is deliberate. It is hard to explain Michael Noonan's bizarre ruminations on feta cheese other than part of a general plan not to aver to the fact that, while we are discussing whether to use the front or back door, the roof may be about to fall in.

I suspect more than my questioners have realised that there is something not quite right about that.

They read and listen every day to tales of economic depressions, capital controls, banking collapses and devalued savings if the euro crisis is not resolved.

Then people come to their doors, or on their televisions, and tell them that, if they vote 'Yes', Ireland will be able to borrow more money if it needs to next year or, alternatively, that the economy will never grow again if the referendum is passed.

And that's about it.

The campaigns have largely had nothing to say about the events which fill the pages and screens of the entire planet.

My questioners, and no doubt many voters, realise that the outcome of this crisis could have the most profound consequences for their lives and would like to know how much it matters which way they vote.

The answer, surely is, a lot.

A 'No' vote implies that the inevitable eurozone responses to the crisis will take place with one member not part of the full fiscal arrangements, which is bound to complicate those already horrendously complex developments.

It is also easy to see that it might be taken as a sign that Ireland was not fully committed to membership of the euro, now that membership is no longer seen as the indissoluble bond it was meant to be. As such, it might well contribute to "contagion" which would follow a Greek exit, or even accompany any new Greek deal.

If that happened, the Government would doubtless say that a 'No' was just a vote against the pain of austerity, while trying to engineer a deal which would permit a second referendum.

Perhaps it would even succeed. But if you want to cut out the middle man, there seems little doubt that voting 'Yes' is committing oneself to the urgent job of re-constructing the euro, of which the fiscal treaty is only one part.

We are beginning to see how other parts might fit. Nothing much came out of last week's summit, except the important clarification of Germany's position.

Eurobonds -- the possibility that governments can get some of their funding, even some of their debt, through borrowings made by the whole eurozone -- are not ruled out completely by Berlin.

But the fiscal rules must be in place first, and there must be the same rules for all members. Otherwise, some countries will use eurobonds to run up excessive deficits again.

The Germans are right about that, with Ireland's record making it one of the prime suspects. Full membership of the euro will require membership of the fiscal compact -- and probably a good deal more besides if a credible single currency is to be created.

That raises the mysterious silence of the 'No' campaigners. Having fought every referendum on the grounds that it was a stepping stone to European political union, now that we have one that really is, they seem strangely unable to make it the central issue.

Perhaps they are wise. Opinion polls in Greece and Ireland show voters do not want to leave the euro. Because of the crisis, that is, in reality, the question being asked later on this week; and not just about membership of the present euro, but of a very different one, with far stronger centralised institutions.

Of course, how you vote on that is entirely a matter for yourself.

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