Mr Kenny's summit task

Tue, May 22, 2012, 01:00

THERE’S A Groundhog Day quality to watching European summits: a repetition, it seems, almost word for word of previous declarations and unchanging orthodox economic mantras, a sense of glacial progress, endless talk of “last ditch” efforts, of German obstacles, and if any movement, “just enough, just in time”.

Tomorrow, as the EU leaders come together again informally in Brussels to discuss growth and the Greek crisis – euro-crisis summit number 21 since 2009 – it will probably seem like more of the same.

But there are some straws in the wind that suggest a changing tide, driven in part by the French election result. Tectonic plates on the move, but at the pace of tectonic plates. “Growth” is now on everyone’s lips, although major differences remain about how to stimulate it. There is common ground on expanding the capital base of the European Investment Bank, on making structural funding more growth-sensitive, and on so-called project bonds for infrastructure.

There will again be reassuring words about the desire to retain Greece within the euro zone, although a vagueness about what can be done to ensure it does or contingency measures for a worse-case scenario. The weekend meeting of the G8 countries suggested, however, that Germany still remains reluctant to embrace the idea of mutualising European debt with eurobonds, seen by new French president François Hollande as crucial. And Berlin is as unsympathetic to Italian prime minister Mario Monti’s idea of establishing a pan-European fund to guarantee deposits in banks and of freeing the ECB to invest in bond markets. Such ideas are likely to be music to the ears of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as both could provide important opportunities for Ireland. At best, however, the summit’s informal summary will suggest that such ideas are under consideration. At best.

From an Irish perspective, Mr Kenny’s main preoccupation must be to try to get clarity from Mr Hollande about his intentions on the fiscal treaty. While it’s clear the French president is committed to the treaty’s fiscal disciplines, and the text that embodies them, it’s still unclear if he will content himself with a separate declaration on growth, or insist on a new formal protocol, in effect an amendment to the treaty. The latter would cause Ireland some legal and political problems, effectively requiring a subsequent additional ratification process, post-referendum, although not a second poll. And, inevitably, an unfortunate muddying of the water politically on the timing of the current vote.

Mr Hollande’s reluctance to be too specific is linked to his own legislative elections on June 17th, and his need to be seen to emerge from the meeting with a political prize of substance. Ireland’s preoccupations are small beer by comparison – behind us, the punching-above-our-weight poster-boy days of the Celtic Tiger when our shining example gave us an authority that could demand to be heard and a sympathetic ear. Or indeed, the days when an Irish referendum could hold up the whole European train. Mr Kenny has a difficult wicket to play.

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