Treaty debate could move us to core of EU


WORLD VIEW:Voters are entitled to a well-argued campaign, but is the political class capable of providing it?

IRELAND CAN move from the new periphery towards the developing core of the EU during the forthcoming referendum on the fiscal compact treaty if the debate we need on the euro’s future and our interest in its survival is conducted effectively.

One of the principal democratic deficiencies of the EU is its failure to connect representative politics properly with policymaking. Ireland’s experience of referendums can help repair the gap if this deliberative opportunity is taken.

A compelling case can be made about alternative ways to develop the single currency on either side of the treaty argument.

Some 82 per cent of Irish voters support the euro, according to the latest Red C poll (in striking contrast to declining rates of trust in other EU institutions). These attitudes are mirrored throughout the EU.

There are strong prudential arguments that a No result would exclude us from participating in the euro zone’s deepening development and from using the new European Stability Mechanism if we need another bailout. And we do not have a veto on it this time.

But if the treaty commits us in effect to indefinite austerity, what scope is there to change that policy if we vote Yes? Can it be shifted by wider movements in European politics such as the French presidential election?

What guarantees are there that, having achieved constitutionalisation of such policies, the now dominant Germans will agree to add on the missing elements in the euro’s design, such as a larger budget, a financial transaction tax, much stronger banking regulation, a growth and jobs mandate for the European Central Bank, a debt agency and collective eurobonds?

The arguments for developing such policies in Ireland’s best interests need to be heard loudly in the campaign if voters are to connect with the issues involved and if their political interests are to be served.

But the main Irish political parties are not well geared to fight referendum campaigns, even though experience has taught their leaders that they must campaign vigorously and persistently over the long term if referendums are to be passed, that political communication is put at a premium, and that they should be able and willing to argue their case.

If in government, parties are frustrated by court restrictions on State involvement and requirements for balanced broadcasting; if in opposition, they resent the expenditure required and are ill-equipped to fight such a campaign on the doorsteps.

But in Ireland engagement with the EU is overwhelmingly elite-led, knowledge of it is usually mediated by political parties, and support for it is based on trust in and cues from political leaders. Leaders of Labour, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael favour deeper integration more than their members or supporters.

It is doubtful whether these lessons from the first Nice and Lisbon campaigns have been properly learned by the leaders who favour the fiscal compact treaty.

Dismally lacklustre and unconvincing campaigns were run on both occasions, with a failure to mobilise civil society organisations for the changes.

Arguably it was voters and civil society leaders who rescued the governments on both occasions by subsequently providing the conditions for more informed public deliberation on the case for further integration.

Knowledge of what is in the treaty and how the system works is critical. On previous occasions up to 42 per cent of No voters said they so voted because they did not know enough about the issues. That puts a premium on good information campaigns – but even more on good public argument, which is how people really learn.

There is now a much more attentive and better informed Irish public because of the economic and euro crises. They are entitled to a well-argued campaign, but is the political class capable of providing it?

They should be able to handle the central questions of “how much Europe?”, “what kind of EU?”, and “what policies can best get us there?”. These questions now agitate the whole continent and the world beyond it, which is anxious to know whether the euro can survive.

Experience shows that the political system can respond when pushed by having a well-informed campaign concentrating on European issues rather than being a proxy for a vote against the government.

But this is also a test of how governing parties link European issues with domestic politics. Normally they prefer to keep them separate, the better to control their options. Too much is at stake for the EU’s legitimacy as an experiment in transnational politics and economics for this to continue.

Elements of direct democracy such as referendums, electing the European Commission president and citizens’ initiatives, or far better involvement of national parliaments, can help recreate that legitimacy.

Ireland can have a genuinely innovative role if it takes these opportunities to assert its own interests and values rather than deferring to the logic of those who are bailing us out.

That means there should be scope to disagree strongly with the German-led position on fiscal discipline – austerity politics, as others see it – while still wanting to see Ireland stay part of a deepening EU.

Voters face a fateful and difficult choice.