Yes vote to fiscal compact could well prove fatal

Wed, Apr 25, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:THE DECISION of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union executive to recommend a No vote to our 40,000 members in the referendum on the fiscal treaty follows serious consideration of the issues.

We do not normally campaign or recommend how members should vote in referendums. The only exception was when we advised a No vote in the two Lisbon referendums on the basis that these did not contain adequate safeguards for workers. Unfortunately, events since have borne out the validity of that assessment.

The programme for government contains belated provision for collective bargaining, thanks to the Labour Party, but there are no signs of implementation in sight, even though the centenary of the 1913 Lockout, fought over this very issue, is almost upon us.

Why are we still denied a basic civil right enjoyed by workers in 24 of the other EU member states for decades? The answer, quite simply, is that in our political system the rights of working families come very near the back of the queue. There is always some more important constituency whose needs must be addressed and never has this been more blatant than in the current economic crisis.

Siptu general president Jack O’Connor put forward an imaginative proposal to release pension funds into the economy in ways that would generate growth and create employment. His union is advising members that it will not recommend a Yes vote unless such a stimulus package is put in place to offset the hardship contained in the fiscal compact’s austerity strategy. Such a plan would not breach the terms imposed on us by the troika and has been welcomed by mainstream economists, but totally ignored by the Government. Whoever else Ministers are listening to it is not the trade unions, the largest civil society movement on this island.

The one positive development since the onset of the depression in 2008 has been Ireland’s increased competitiveness. Irish workers’ productivity has increased faster than that of any of our major trading partners.

We are now in the highest quartile of OECD member states when it comes to advances in reducing real unit labour costs. Utilising the pension fund mechanism advocated by Siptu and endorsed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions would maximise these gains.

There was a time when we could look to the Europe of Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors to address the deficits in our social as well as our physical infrastructure. Regrettably those days are long gone and the new policy is one of restoring public finances by driving down wages, pushing up unemployment, cutting welfare rates and reducing employment rights. Meanwhile the past benefits of EU membership have been squandered by successive governments that pandered to bankers and developers, culminating in the infamous blank cheque of September 2008 that sentenced us to a generation of penury.

The only good news is that people across Europe are waking up to the idiocy of a programme of synchronised fiscal contraction across the continent. It might have worked for Germany after reunification because of a buoyant international economy, but its application now across Europe, when growth in the US economy is still problematic, means there are fewer and fewer markets to export to. It is really a policy of “beggar my neighbour”, without realising that it is leading to mutual destitution as well.

A more self-defeating strategy is hard to imagine, and citizens in France and the Netherlands are waking up to the consequences of the Merkozy strategy, even though contraction in their economies has been a fraction of ours. It has worked here only because of our vulnerability as a small peripheral economy whose government sold its soul to Anglo Irish Bank.

Once austerity begins to bite in the euro zone core, the Merkozy strategy will implode economically and politically. The problem is how best we can survive until that happens.

Advocates of the fiscal treaty may be right in arguing for economic convergence in the long term if the euro is to remain a major international currency, but as far as Ireland is concerned the present strategy is redolent of British policy during the Famine. Having identified the fundamental problem as being too many people trying to scrape a living off the land, the British government decided to eradicate them.

Markets must be made subservient to the populations they are supposed to serve, not the other way around. Yet blind faith in those markets is still alive and thriving among the governing elites of Europe, despite two world wars and the Great Depression. We have no problem with these people wishing to self-destruct but we do not intend to be dragged down with them.

The French election offers a window of opportunity we should not ignore.

At the very least the Government should await its outcome before attempting to lock us into a fiscal compact that will be bad medicine for Europe and possibly fatal for ourselves. As Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary David Begg has said, we are in a dilemma, with a gun to our heads in the form of a threat of being locked out of the new European Stability Mechanism if we do not sign up to more austerity.

That may be, and it is far from certain that we would be forced into a default because of the potential fallout across the euro zone. But a rejection of the compact would certainly strengthen the growing popular mood against austerity in Europe. At the very least the Government must decide which side it is on. By deferring the referendum and capitalising on the groundswell against austerity across Europe it could help tilt the balance of power back towards the peoples of Europe.

Eamon Devoy is general secretary of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union

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