Time for a focused debate

Wed, Mar 28, 2012, 01:00

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision that the referendum on the fiscal compact treaty will be held on Thursday May 31st gives it just two months to make the case that passing it is in Ireland’s fundamental interest. The decision is welcome, removing uncertainty following the Attorney General’s advice that it is constitutionally required.

 It will give an opportunity for focused debate in the forthcoming campaign with proper communication of public information, and involving political parties, interest groups and movements in civil society. Their participation is essential if the treaty is to be thoroughly analysed and widely understood.

Ireland is the only euro zone member state to hold a referendum on this inter-governmental treaty. It will install stricter rules on fiscal and budgetary discipline within the euro zone, including possible sanctions on states that breach them. It forms part of the armoury agreed to save the euro after more than two years of intense pressure from financial markets.

Passage of the treaty is necessary if Ireland is to benefit from the permanent European Stability Mechanism to be put in place next year, should this State need another bailout. That is a bracing condition facing those who oppose it, as is the fact that the treaty will go ahead even if Ireland rejects it, since it does not require unanimity.

Those who favour the treaty need to clarify why it is needed if the euro is to survive and Ireland is to remain a full participant in its governance. They need to focus attention directly on these questions rather than allow the campaign to be captured by other domestic issues. One difficulty they face is continuing uncertainty over the larger macroeconomic and political bargain of which this treaty is but one part. It is widely considered to be the price for German approval of a larger fund to backstop the euro and eventually for a scheme of mutualised risk in the form of eurobonds and closer political union.

But such further measures are not yet agreed. The referendum provides a good opportunity to debate their desirability, feasibility and harmony with Ireland’s own interests. The treaty’s supporters should not avoid such public deliberation. It will bring these economic issues into the foreground, as well as the new political structures and policies at European level needed to put them in place. That would be a useful exercise for all Europeans and not only for the Irish body politic.

Opponents of the treaty must provide an alternative vision for this State if the treaty is rejected. That would leave Ireland in an anomalous position between a deepening euro zone and a United Kingdom increasingly dissociated from the EU. Where should Ireland go then and what is the political and economic logic of such a scenario? These hard questions match those facing the treaty’s supporters about the logic of deeper EU integration. Ireland faces a difficult and fateful political choice on these matters. Voters are entitled to expect a well-informed and responsible campaign on them.