WE are in the same position as a man whose house is in flames but knows that the fire brigade will only turn up when the block of flats down the road catches alight as well. This week, the flames that have torched Ireland, Greece and Portugal began to lick around Italy and Spain. The fire engine's siren is wailing and some sort of rescue operation is heading our way but it would be premature, and a little caddish, to cheer too loudly.
Even as we see our own bonds downgraded to junk status, the main concern in Brussels will be to save Italy and Spain. That we could be saved in the process is hardly a consolation.
The inability of Europe to make a good stab at solving the crisis is worrying. It is three years since the crisis first became apparent to even the most blinkered leaders and more than four years since liquidity problems arose in some of the continent's biggest banks. World wars have been fought in less time than it has taken our leaders to devise a convincing response.
There are reasons to be hopeful; with the prospect of Italy and Spain faltering, the continent's best minds and leaders will be thinking of little else.
This can only be good for Ireland. With the slowing world economy chipping away at the prospects of repaying our debts on time, we need changes to the terms of our bailout if we are to continue. They look more certain as the crisis worsens but they will be accompanied by other less welcome changes.
Scrutiny of how we spend our money will increase. Every cent will have to stretch further. More cuts are inevitable. New agreements to extend the period of time we have to repay debts will be seen as a default in some quarters no matter what fancy terminology the EC devises. Our credit rating, already among the lowest in the world following yesterday's downgrade, will take even longer to recover.
Perhaps most worrying of all is that Italy's problems will be another drag on the continent's economy. The one bright spot in the Irish story, the one thing that sets us apart from the other bailout nations, is our vibrant export sector which ensures Irish-made goods can be found in every corner of Europe. Our food, software and pharmaceuticals are all in demand but that demand cannot continue indefinitely if economic giants such as Italy flounder.