Manner of commission's report leak has not been addressed

Thu, Jun 14, 2012, 01:00

Perhaps the report’s most interesting aspect is its discussion of welfare benefits for the unemployed

BEFORE DISCUSSING the substance of the European Commission’s latest quarterly report on the Government’s adherence to the terms of its bailout, the manner of its leaking (to this newspaper’s Berlin correspondent) requires some comment.

The European Commission is the EU’s executive branch. It shares thoughts, positions and papers with its counterparts in national capitals. Just as confidentiality is often required within executives and between executives – in ministry-to-ministry and government-to-government contact respectively – so too is it sometimes required in a European context.

To see why, take the example of the Anglo-Irish relationship. Imagine if during negotiations leading up to the Belfast Agreement the British government had made every draft document available to leaky Westminster. The teasing out of delicate issues would have been impossible. It is unlikely that a deal would ever have been reached.

The German finance ministry says it is legally obliged to pass on to parliament the draft commission assessments of bailed-out countries.

This makes teasing out of delicate issues more difficult.

More generally, if every country said that its laws demanded this draft or that draft from Brussels be sent to their parliaments, EU business would grind to a halt.

The principle that European law is supreme over national law was established as long ago as 1964 precisely because it was understood that a union of laws could not work if every country decided unilaterally that its rules trumped collective rules.

If Germany does not appreciate this, then the onus is on the European Commission to act to prevent further leaks. There is no sign of that.

Yesterday the commission described the leak as “regrettable”. That can be an appropriate response when something bad happens for the first time. It amounts to bleating when exactly the same thing happens again and nothing has been done to prevent it.

And if the commission’s response to an Irish Times query yesterday is anything to go by, nothing is being done to prevent it happening yet again in the future. Would Brussels be so meek if Bratislava, rather than Berlin, was the source of repeated leaks of its draft documents?

On the substance of the document, perhaps the most interesting aspect is its discussion of welfare benefits for the unemployed given the on-going brouhaha over the Richard Tol/ESRI working paper on the subject.

Much of the reaction to that paper has come from the they’re-all-scroungers brigade on the one hand and unthinking, status quo welfarists on the other. The commission analysis, by contrast, makes many valuable comparative points about how the Irish system of helping the jobless functions, or, more appropriately, dysfunctions.

Like any organisation that looks at the comparative evidence base on helping people back to work, the commission is an advocate of the Nordic model.

There, benefits are generous initially (to help minimise income loss), but taper off after a time (to incentivise early return to work). Interaction between jobless people and welfare officers is intense, helpful, demanding and dignified. Meetings take place in private offices across desks as happens in any modern professional circumstance.

Despite the success of the Nordic model, Ireland’s labour exchanges have barely changed over decades.

Among other things, those out of work are forced to suffer the indignity of having to speak to officials about their predicament through glass panels while others listen over their shoulder.

This state of affairs continues despite the limitless opportunities that existed to reform the system during the boom years. Instead, and until recently, successive ministers and officials sat back and did nothing.

The draft commission document said that, apart from weak demand, the increase in unemployment was “due to Ireland’s traditionally weak job-search conditionality regime and essentially unlimited duration of unemployment assistance”.

It goes on to say that while it acknowledges “some steps” towards modernisation, “further reform measures to increase efficiency and improve targeting are required”.

But even these not particularly ambitious measures are being delayed. Astonishingly, the Civil and Public Sector Union is threatening strike action if glass panels separating its staff from jobseekers are removed as planned so that welfare recipients can have a more Nordic and dignified kind of interaction with their case officers.

It beggars belief that cossetted insiders with 100 per cent job security want to be hermetically sealed off from those they are paid to serve.

If that symbolises the attitude of the public sector to reform, then the Croke Park agreement should be scrapped today.

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