Ireland off EU radar screen as Spanish bailout looms
ON THE evening of October 19th, 2002, RTÉ broke into the Saturday night movie to broadcast the result from six constituencies in the second Nice referendum.
It was the first and only referendum in which votes, or at least some votes, were cast electronically. A decision to pilot electronic voting machines in six constituencies meant that their returning officers were able to upload the cartridges and announce the results within an hour of the polls closing.
By comparing the results in those constituencies with how they voted in the first Nice referendum, it was possible to assess quickly what it meant for the overall national outcome. In studio, I told Brian Dobson that there was no need to wait for the manual vote count in the other constituencies the next day.
“It’s all over,” I said. “They can open the champagne in Government Buildings. They can uncork it also in Brussels and in the capitals of the aspirant new entrants in eastern Europe. It’s yes and a big yes.”
It was a spontaneous soundbite and, as it happened, was picked up by some international news agencies and carried in newspapers across Europe and further afield where the referendum outcome was being closely followed because of its implications for European integration and enlargement.
On that particular weekend in 2002, Europe held its breath waiting for news of the Irish referendum results.
Last Friday morning, it was again clear within an hour of the ballot boxes being opened that the outcome on the fiscal treaty referendum was going to be a decisive yes. However, there was no Europe-wide celebration at the news and certainly no champagne.
The result was noted in Europe with mild relief that the Irish were not going to further complicate a bad situation. Europe’s interest in our outcome was muted in part because the fiscal compact is not contingent on Irish participation and Europe’s politicians and policymakers are absorbed in more important issues than Ireland’s ratification.
With enough on their minds worrying about Spanish banks and Greek elections, expecting them to apply themselves to a restructuring of Irish bank debt is naive. Ireland is not now high on Europe’s agenda.
The economist John FitzGerald put it best on Newstalk on Monday when he summed up the German government response to Irish demands for attention as one of “not now, we’re busy”. Well-behaved Ireland is being ignored and some may feel neglected by Angela Merkel and other European leaders who are focused instead on our more troublesome siblings in Greece and Spain.
The Spanish crisis has suddenly intensified the euro crisis. The hole in the Spanish banks could be as large as €80 billion. Spain is one of Europe’s largest economies, making a Spanish bailout and its potential for contagion a threat to the very survival of the euro. That threat is on an entirely difficult scale from even the risks associated with a Greek exit.