Should we look for a reformed EU?


The breezy confidence – in public anyway – of the Minister for Finance and the Tánaiste is frankly a bit unnerving, not least because it has some resonance of the bailout denials of 2010.

What is particularly worrisome is that a proposal seems to have been allowed go all the way to the ECB governing council before being knocked back. Normally things are not allowed go that far unless there is agreement and it smacks of a badly played game of bluff or a last minute change of heart by some members of the ECB governing council.

Ether way the refuseniks on the governing council are holding out not because the ECB can’t do what Ireland is asking but because they dont want it to do it. Or more accurately they don’t think the ECB has to do it.

The technical or prudential arguments against what Ireland is proposing don’t really stand up to scrutiny. Refinancing a €30 billion promissory note is not even in the same neighbourhood, when it comes to abandoning the founding principles of the ECB, as committing to unlimited purchases of member state government bonds. Having bent the rules badly to save Spain and Italy the governing council does not seem minded to approve another little tweak to sort the promissory notes.

Their reluctance is understandable. How do you accede to Ireland’s request and hold the line that despite its unlimited bond buying programme the ECB has not crossed the Rubicon into monetary financing of member states?

The question they should really be asking is why do you they want to try and hold the line? It was only when the markets realised that the ECB had crossed it that the heat drained out of the eurocrisis. But that is a discussion for another day.

For the meantime the ECB struggles to come to terms with its loss of virtue and Ireland twists in the wind.


It is debatable as to what more we can do much in the short term to try to force a favourable decision ahead of our self-imposed deadline of early March when the next payment on the note falls due.

But then along comes David Cameron with his referendum on Europe. In a peculiar twist on the adage that “England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity” the chaos that will ensue once the UK starts to throw its weight about could be to our advantage. Along with all the other messages worth conveying to the ECB is that if we are not treated fairly over the promissory note then what reason do we have to believe we will be treated fairly in the future and we will need to ask ourselves if out interest are not better served by the type of reformed EU the British want.

Bilateral talks

The real beauty of this message is that it is not some stupid threat we cannot follow through on. It is a completely rational position and even if the promissory note was not on the table Ireland would need to look very seriously at what the British are proposing – and what they plan to do if they don’t get it – and decide what is in our national interest. It would represent quite a leap from our traditional “be good Europeans and hope for the best” tactics but that is exactly the point. If the ECB does not come up with the goods on the promissory note then the only rational conclusion that can be drawn is that being good Europeans no longer works. All that matters is being big Europeans which we will never be.

Rather than be surprised by our response the hyper rational northern European’s should be more surprised if we didn’t draw the logical consequences from what is going down and act accordingly.

The problem with trying to take advantage of what the British have in mind is that it is pretty shambolic and Cameron appears to have been forced into it rather than acting out of any conviction.

Given that things are so messy it is hard to see where the short-term leverage is for Ireland. But some high level bilateral talks with the British on what they have in mind and how it might affect issues of specific Anglo Irish common interest would be worth having. Item number one could be cross Border banking and the merger of the Irish Government-owned AIB with the British government-owned Ulster Bank. That should get everyone’s attention in Frankfurt.

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