Reality is that austerity would be even worse without EU-IMF


WHILE FINTAN O’Toole’s piece in last week’s Irish Times(“Let’s end charade before EU chiefs get more powers”, November 29th) was no doubt intended to be provocative, I would like to challenge some of his assertions, writes

First, the idea that Ireland’s EU membership can be reduced to a series of cash transfers is to caricature in the crudest way what EU membership has meant to this country. On joining the EU, Ireland’s GDP was 64 per cent of the EU average. Now, even in difficult times, it is 25 per cent above the EU average.

Virtually every sector of the Irish economy has benefited.

And the advantages have not just been economic with EU social legislation – on equal pay, maternity leave, health and safety at work – helping to raise living standards. The same goes for environmental legislation.

Second, the idea the EU-IMF programme was put in place to “save” German banks, while convenient, is far too simplistic. Most of the money being loaned to Ireland is to cover the day-to-day costs of running the State. Without this financing, the country would have no option but to immediately close the gap between spending and revenue. This would imply austerity on a draconian level.

The financing gives the Government the time and space to gradually reduce its budget deficit to a sustainable level.

If the programme were truly to rescue the German banks, why not keep the funds in Germany and directly inject them into that country’s financial institutions? Why risk lending money to Ireland? Why also lend money to Portugal and Greece?

While lending by foreign banks certainly played a role in the Irish boom, let’s remember that the rise in personal indebtedness here from 2001 to 2007 vastly outstripped what was happening in neighbouring countries.

Worse, ballooning Irish government expenditure fuelled the boom and taxes became heavily dependent on property.

Prudent fiscal management in these years would not have left the country so vulnerable to the crash. This, combined with a failure to properly supervise the Irish banks, is the root cause of Ireland’s problems today.

While the country is by no means out of the woods, it is important not to lose sight of the progress that has been achieved over the past year. Growth has resumed, on the basis of a strong rebound in Irish exports.

Of course, the domestic economy remains weak and unemployment is still far too high. But this is a reflection of the dramatic shrinking of construction’s share in the economy and the fact the high indebtedness of Irish households is holding back spending.

Furthermore, it is arguably only due to the programme that there has been such progress in repairing Ireland’s banking sector. While the job is not yet done, Ireland is on track to having a better-capitalised, smaller financial sector, vital to supporting the country’s economic revival. Without a functioning banking system, Irish small businesses cannot get credit, young people cannot buy homes and the economy would effectively cease to function.

Finally, thanks again to the programme, sheltered sectors of the economy, such as the legal and medical professions, are being opened up. This will bring prices down for Irish consumers and reduce costs for businesses.

With the ongoing turbulence in markets affecting more and more countries, the safest place for Ireland to be right now is in the programme, with its stable source of financing, now being made available at an interest rate that is far below what many countries are paying in the market.

While there is certainly an understandable temptation to blame others for the country’s predicament, Patrick Honohan concluded in his 2010 report that “although international pressures contributed to the timing, intensity and depth of the Irish banking crisis, the essential characteristic of the problem was domestic and classic”.

The simple truth is, the measures Ireland is taking under the programme would have had to happen anyway. Without the support of the EU and the IMF, they would have been far more painful to undertake. The real charade would be to pretend otherwise.

Barbara Nolan is head of the European Commission Representation in Ireland