Fintan O’Toole: AIB sale shows a servile attitude to the EU

Obsequiousness towards Brussels technocracy is as bad for Europe as it is for Ireland

Michael Noonan and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi. File photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Noonan and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi. File photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

 

There are two ways to be “bad Europeans”. One is the constant denigration of everything to do with the European Union, regardless of minor inconveniences such as the truth. We know all about this because the British media market spills over into ours. And we know where it leads: to Brexit and beyond. We don’t want to go there.

But the other way to be bad Europeans is obsequiousness to the demands of the technocratic elites in Brussels and Frankfurt. If the EU is not a community of vibrant, challenging, sceptical democracies, it will wither. The meek will inherit nothing.

And even while the Government is (rightly) anxious to prove that the Irish are good Europeans in the first sense, it is behaving like very bad Europeans in the second.

In Michael Noonan’s plan for the sale of part of Allied Irish Bank, likely to be triggered this week, we see the continuation of a master-servant relationship: our role is to obey Europe, not to think for ourselves. This is very bad for us, but it is also a betrayal of what the EU should be.

Like a child that has had its fingers burned, Michael Noonan never again touched the flame of disobedience

Noonan’s term as Minister for Finance has been shaped overwhelmingly by one imperative: rigorous obedience to the demands of the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Its defining moment came early on in 2011 when the Cabinet actually voted to burn remaining bondholders in the bailed-out Irish banks.

As first revealed by Pat Leahy, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank at the time, threatened Noonan that a financial “bomb would go off in Dublin” if he did so.

Noonan capitulated and the Cabinet decision was set aside. Like a child that has had its fingers burned, he never again touched the flame of disobedience. His Uriah Heep act extended even to defending Trichet’s outrageous interference by calling the bomb a “prediction” rather than a threat.

Final absurdity

It’s hard to get out of this submissive mentality. We have become used to the Janus-faced Noonan: arrogant and dismissive in the Dáil, ever so ’umble in Europe. But with the AIB sale, the act has attained its final absurdity.

There is a wide consensus that the State should sell off its shares in AIB, even at an enormous loss to the taxpayer. (Nationalising the bank cost us almost €21 billion; the State’s valuation of the bank at the end of last year was just €11.3 billion.)

The consensus is based on the endlessly repeated line that states are no good at running banks – whereas, as we know,  private interests have always run them splendidly.

Be that as it may, the sale of AIB is to begin with an initial public offering of 25 per cent of the shares and this is expected to yield about €3 billion. The question is what to do with this money.

Or more specifically, the question is who gets to decide what to do with this money. AIB, God help us, belongs to us. Real Irish people endured great suffering in order to rescue it.

Doing so was, we were told, a vital national interest – it was worth savaging the benefits of the most vulnerable people for, worth seeing our children emigrate for. Yet now, at the other end of this process, it’s suddenly none of our business.

It is not even the business of our elected parliament. On May 19th, the Dáil voted overwhelmingly to support a Labour private members’ motion calling for the sale of the AIB shares to be postponed until the proceeds could be used to fund capital investment in Ireland.

Almost immediately, Michael Noonan was out with a breathtakingly contemptuous statement, regally “noting” the Dáil vote but putting the elected parliament in its place: “The Government position remains unchanged.”

Technocrats know best

The counterpoint to this monarchical hauteur towards a mere Irish parliament is a fawning sycophancy towards the European Commission on the substantive question of what should be done with the €3 billion.

The technocrats have decreed that the money can be used for one purpose alone: to pay down the national debt. Never mind that the sum is entirely irrelevant to the national debt – it would reduce it by a mere 1 per cent.

This is the technocracy in all its self-assured idiocy. Even when its approach has brought the EU to the brink of collapse, it knows what is best for all of us.

The EU won’t survive if its national democracies are treated as irrelevant irritants

Pretty much every objective observer knows that Ireland is suffering from a disastrous deficit in public capital investment. Everyone who functions in the real economy knows that the €3 billion should be used to kick-start vital infrastructural projects, especially in social housing and public transport.

And besides the economic case, there is also the psychological case: Irish people need to see something back from the suffering they endured to save the European banking system. This would be a pitiful return, but at least it would be a gesture.

But no – we can’t be bad Europeans. Even when the thing that is really bad for Europe is what we are seeing here.

The EU won’t survive if its national democracies are treated as irrelevant irritants, if central dictates are treated as commandments set in stone, and if the supposed good of Europe is so patently bad for real citizens.

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