I NEVER really expected a European referendum campaign to be particularly informative, but I suppose I am a man who lives in the constant hope that my inner cynic will be proved wrong. Despite all the evidence to the contrary in the Fiscal Treaty Campaign to date, I still hoped that watching the Frontline debate was going to leave me a wiser man.
While traditionally I have always supported European referendums, the last few years have not been particularly inspiring. The EU has been ham-fisted and weak throughout this crisis. Its actions during Ireland’s first bailout negotiations were reprehensible and designed to put the EU well ahead of any concern on what was happening in Ireland. I also cannot shake the fear that there is a growing number of people, particularly within the European Commission ranks, that see this as an opportunity to develop a federal Europe. I have never believed in that. For me, Europe was always a club of individual nations. These nations would come together, negotiate, compromise, but always the political power lay with the nation state.
Europe worked well with this model. Some suggest a single currency is only viable with a federal state, I disagree. It all depends on where power resides. If you hand power over to the commission and the European Parliament then you get a federal state. If ultimate power remains in the hands of the heads of state and council of ministers then the power is not centralised but remains in the hands of democratically elected governments. It is because of this lack of clear direction and strength that I have been very tempted to vote no.
However, there is a problem with money. The simplest solution by far is to ensure Ireland has access to the new stability funds. The No side make valid points on the ‘bigger’ issues of where Europe is going, but then they have told us the sky is falling in in every vote since 1973. Right now I just want them to focus on the money and how they can guarantee that a no vote will not mean a default or even deeper austerity.
So I sat down to watch the Frontline debate hoping that there might be something to allay my fears. I was to be disappointed yet again. The two female speakers, Norah Casey and Mary Lou McDonald at least managed to convey some sense of humanity. The two men on the panel, Declan Ganley and Eamon Gilmore, seemed well out of touch, pushing their own political agendas rather than engaging on what the issues might be for ordinary people and trying to explain them. I have questions on this treaty, I simply want answers. I do not wish to be shouted at, told to just trust someone or told that I lack courage or am a coward for voting one way or another.
The debate itself was a farce. In fact it was a complete insult to the word debate. Filled with shouting, bickering, personal insults and pointless red herring arguments I struggled not to turn it off completely. The Yes side said it was a step towards resolution, but they still failed to say what the next steps will be. They can give no idea as to what their view of what Europe needs to do or become is. This worries me greatly. Is it because they don’t really know? If that’s the case then trusting my future to them is very difficult. The No side seemed completely unable to answer any question and instead simply pointed out the failings of those on the yes side.
Time and time again the question was asked ‘Where will we get the money?’ it was blithely ignored for the most part. Eventually, Declan Ganley said ‘the bond markets’. The same bond markets that want to charge us a rate of interest far in excess of what we pay in the current bailout deal? The same bond markets that fluctuate wildly and push up rates on a rumour or sense of fear? In the current environment, No thank you.
It seemed to me that Declan Ganley wanted one thing to happen…..default. Personally I’m not ready for that yet and still need to hear someone articulate exactly what will happen if we choose that road. Mary Lou McDonald seemed more of the belief that the EU would still stump up, that sounds more attractive, but isn’t it just a bit of a gamble and will the reward be any greater? Then Ganley mentioned the idea of ‘federalising’ debt and a federal Europe is not where I want to be.
Other than that it was bluster and clichés from all the participants. There was no real sense that they truly understood what matters to ordinary people. Each one was either arguing a higher theoretical political point or advancing a narrow political agenda. Not one seemed actually concerned about what’s going to happen ordinary people in either scenario.
Then of course there was the audience. I cannot for the life of me understand what the audience actually brings to such debates. Anyone can ask the questions, it’s the answers we are meant to hear. If I want to be informed then I want to hear the views of the people who are supposed to be experts on this. If I want to hear why the average punter is voting yes or no then I will go to the pub or the local supermarket and talk to people.
The clapping or jeering comments is tiresome and only adds to speakers shouting over each other and increasing the noise level. Then one speaker or another looks all smug and happy that they got applause when we are all sitting at home knowing full well that the only people clapping or booing are the hacks and plants that the audience is filled with. This is not informative debate is reality TV. Then Pat Kenny himself began to get irked when an audience member turned the debate around to reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. There is little doubt but that yet again the debate was heading into the zone of talking about the future rather than the treaty.
Kenny told the man to ‘get a life’. That might have been a bit harsh, but to be honest weren’t we all sitting at home looking at this panel and each speaker and thinking that?
We came out of it none the wiser. We truly need to find a new format for debates if this was anything to go by. I fully expect I might learn more about the Fiscal Compact Treaty by watching the Eurovision song contest and it won’t be half as noisy either. I have never believed that Enda Kenny should avoid debates the way he does, but last night I was left thinking that maybe, just maybe, he has a point after all. There were no winners here.
Johnny Fallon is a political commentator.