What happens next if Ireland votes...

Tue, May 8, 2012, 01:00

NO: “Pointing out that the granting of financial assistance in the framework of new programmes under the European Stability Mechanism will be conditional ... on the ratification of this Treaty by the Contracting Party concerned . . .” – Preamble to the fiscal treaty

UNLIKE ANY previous EU or EEC treaty the consequences of non-ratification – of a No vote – by Ireland of the fiscal treaty will fall entirely on Ireland. Unlike the Nice and Lisbon Treaties when Ireland, in voting No, held back treaty implementation in every member state, now, once 12 other states have ratified it, the treaty will come into force in the ratifying states, leaving laggards behind.

But the treaty’s peculiar nature – it is largely limited to the enshrining in treaty form of legally binding commitments already agreed by EU member states – means that Ireland will nevertheless be under an obligation to implement the vast majority of its provisions even if we vote No.

The necessity to package in treaty form such commitments, known as the “six pack” and “two pack” (of which more anon), was largely a political rather than a legal concession to placate Germany.

Subtract such pre-existing commitments from the treaty, and what are we left with? Substantially there would only be one direct consequence – a very substantial consequence – for Ireland of a No vote: the loss of the State’s ability to be considered for a second bailout from the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) (see clause from preamble above).

In the short term, any vote to opt out of the ESM protective net is certain, economists argue, to make markets more nervous about Irish debt and to push up the cost of borrowing. With notional Irish borrowing costs on the open market still at an unsustainable level, this would delay the return of private investors and make a second bailout more likely.

In the event that a second rescue should prove necessary – and most economists believe it will be – there would be no right to ESM loans. International aid, if then forthcoming, either from the IMF or in the form of bilateral aid from EU partners along the lines of the first Greek bailout, would almost certainly have yet more stringent policy conditions attached.

The “six-pack” are a set of regulations and a directive enacted by the European Council in December 2011 under powers provided by the Lisbon Treaty which formalise EU economic governance rules for all 27 member states, with some specifically geared to euro members. They, with the “two pack” of euro area surveillance mechanisms due to be agreed shortly, strengthen the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).

A few provisions of the fiscal treaty are more stringent than the six-pack. There is, for example in the treaty a greater degree of automaticity in the way fines are imposed for states in breach of their budget deficit obligations. In the treaty the maximum structural deficit allowed is also 0.5 per cent, while in the six pack, 1 per cent. In practice such minor differences, however, would not impact on Ireland before 2014 as its budgets will be set in agreement with the EU-IMF as part of our bailout – such EU-IMF programmes are specifically excluded by the treaty from its remit.

The treaty also requires member states to enshrine its balanced budget “golden rule” in national binding law, preferably of constitutional nature. Ireland proposes to do so in the form not of a constitutional amendment but of a Fiscal Responsibility Bill and will do so irrespective of how the country votes on the treaty because it has already made a commitment to the EU-IMF troika to do so.

Although Ireland, if it votes No, will not be able to draw on the bailout funds of the ESM, established by a separate treaty not requiring referendum ratification, it will remain a full voting member of the ESM and participate in voting on others’ bailouts and will be obliged to contribute to its shares. Our commitment is to 1.6 per cent of the total initial paid in shares of €80 billion.

The treaty’s fundamental rationale is to provide a key missing dimension, a bulwark of disciplines, to the euro, a function that will be as effectively done by 24 as 25 states. But Ireland’s status as a euro member will also not be affected by a No vote. It would remain a full member of the euro zone.

Given previous form, it is reasonable also to ask whether a No vote will simply result in the Government calling a second referendum? To do so would be legally permissible, but probably politically more difficult than ever.

The treaty itself does, however, provide that in five years’ time

an attempt will be made to incorporate it into EU law, at which stage, in the event of a

No now, another Irish referendum would clearly be necessary.

PATRICK SMYTH


YES:

IRELAND’S PUBLIC finances are broken. Again.

In the decade from 1977, successive governments racked up huge debts. By 1987, state indebtedness was among the highest in the world.

The Celtic Tiger was a get-out-of-jail-free card. Although almost no debt was ever actually paid down over boom/bubble periods (it hovered at around €42 billion from 1995 to 2006), the Irish government became one of the least in hock in Europe because the economy grew so rapidly. By 2006, the State’s €44 billion in debt was equivalent to just 25 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) – a very low level by rich world standards.

But then the bubble burst.

Perhaps inevitably, a sovereign debt crisis erupted.

The crisis has afflicted Europe most, even though the euro zone’s aggregate public debt level is lower than Britain’s, America’s or Japan’s.

The fiscal treaty is one part of the European response to break the cycle of contagion and bring debt down to safe levels in all euro area countries.

To achieve this the fiscal compact has two new rules: one specifically on debt levels; and one designed to ensure that governments that appear to be balancing the books are not doing so on the basis of unsustainable factors, such as revenues from housing bubbles.

How will these new rules affect Ireland? It will be some time before we find out because bailed-out countries will not be subject to its strictures, even if they ratify it.

But assuming Ireland exits its bailout in 2013 and all goes to plan, the State will have a public debt to GDP ratio of around 120 per cent. The debt rule in the fiscal compact requires a 1/20 cut each year until the level goes below 60 per cent of GDP.

How hard would it be to achieve that? If the economy were to grow strongly and interest rates were low, it would take place without much effort. That is what happened over more than a decade to 2006 when debt levels (as a percentage of GDP) fell very quickly, even though no debt was actually paid down and the government’s budget stance provided stimulus, not austerity.

Alternatively, if the economy is not growing and interest rates are high, then meeting these targets may well require additional consolidation measures in annual budgets over and above what might have been required in the absence of the target.

The second new rule introduced in the fiscal treaty is that the “structural” budget deficit is no more than 0.5 per cent of GDP in normal times. This rule is more controversial because of the opaque meaning of the term “structural” deficit.

The standard, or non-structural, deficit is merely an accounting exercise, which involves measuring revenues and expenditure.

But as Ireland found to its cost, while this measure showed governments here to be balancing the books during the good times, as soon as the bubble burst the public finances blew up. The biggest reason for this – more than the banking costs and the additional spending associated with recession – was the evaporation of the revenues which had flooded into the exchequer from the property boom.

The “structural” deficit target is designed to take account of unsustainable revenues and adjust for the ups and downs of the business cycle. But this is controversial because calculating whether a source of tax is sustainable and unsustainable, or where an economy is in the business cycle, is a matter of judgment.

The new treaty says that European Commission officials will make this calculation, not their counterparts in national finance ministries.

This will inevitably lead to disagreements in the future.

A much more immediate issue is whether a rejection of the treaty would exclude Ireland from second bailout funds if they are needed? The answer, in theory, is yes. Non-ratifiers are excluded from the EU’s new permanent bailout fund, to be in place by the middle of this year.

In practice, however, the situation is less clear cut. After Greece, EU leaders know how serious are the effects of governments defaulting on their debts. They have insisted that Greece – the first developed world sovereign to default in more than half a century – is an “exceptional case”. It is, therefore, possible that in the collective European interest cash would be found to prevent an Irish sovereign default.

That, however, is highly uncertain, as is so much else.

The modern European state has set itself up to be a source of security for citizens. But because so many governments have run up such large debts, they have been unable to provide that security in this time of crisis.

In the worst cases, they have caused additional insecurity by having to retrench sharply. When states overborrow and become dependent on fickle financial markets, they cannot be providers of security to citizens. If the fiscal treaty works as intended, it will help change that.

DAN O'BRIEN