Over the years there has been little or substance to Europe Day in Ireland or elsewhere. It is not a public holiday and it is mostly marked by the institutions of the European Union. This is a shame, because the great achievements of the Union deserve to be recognised.
The nations of Europe agreeing to work together marked a decisive move to overcome a history of devastating conflict and deep poverty. Even in the middle of a profound economic crisis, much of the progress the Union has enabled remains in place. We can and we must focus on the crisis in hand – but equally the only positive way forward is to start by recognising that the European Union is worth working to reform.
At its best Europe has worked because it focused on the core goal of enabling growth which would create jobs and raise living conditions. Those on the extreme right and left have spent decades attacking the Union as a conspiracy against the people when in fact it has been the vital factor in facing down vested interests on behalf of the people.
With rising unemployment and deep deficits, public confidence in all forms of institutions has fallen. What polls show is that its citizens are highly critical of developments in the Union but they have not given up hope. It remains the place where they believe the big solutions to the recession can be found.
Unfortunately, last year saw the leaders of Europe systematically fail in their duty to show resolve and ambition in overcoming this crisis. Where swift action was required they kept kicking the can down the road. Where new policies were needed they kept trying to make failed ones work. Where cooperation was essential they descended into petty squabbles. Thankfully, we appear to have reached a moment where a new departure is underway.
The agreement of the Stability Treaty did not solve the economic crisis but it does appear to have significantly moved on the debate about what must be done. Growth measures which were simply being ignored last year are now being proposed with a great urgency.
Commissioner Rehn last week spoke about how investment for growth must be addressed. Other leaders have backed this up and, most significantly, Francois Hollande has made new growth measures the centrepiece of his policy.
What he and others recognise is that fiscal controls on individual countries have to be matched with central growth measures. To restore confidence in basic budget discipline incorporating existing rules into a stronger treaty is a good thing to do. So too is the establishment of a legally-solid basis for creating a permanent fund to help countries in need. These are vital first steps.
On May 23rd Europe needs its leaders to formally signal that extra growth measures will be agreed in the coming months. If these are significant new changes then a new Treaty will be required. Important changes will not be able to just be added-on to the Stability Treaty because that treaty is between only 25 member states and the entire membership of 27 must agree bigger changes.
I hope that the words of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste over the last few days signal the end of their reserved and timid approach to supporting European growth measures. Neither has undertaken a programme of bilateral contacts with other EU states and Ireland’s negotiating position seems to have been that we’ll support anything as long as it doesn’t require a full EU treaty.
Next January the government takes over the Presidency of the European Council. It does so with a very strong team of officials and a record of Ireland running consistently excellent presidencies. One think the government needs to quickly abandon is the way it focuses European policy on the domestic media rather than our EU partners.
The most effective way to prepare for the Presidency is for Ireland to start taking an active role in pushing ambitious measures to support growth and job creation Europe. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste should stop talking about diplomatic initiatives and actually launch one.
During the rest of this year the Union must focus on investment and growth-supporting reforms. These can’t be the standard small-scale reforms dressed up as a major initiative. If this happens, Ireland’s Presidency may see a serious turn-around in Europe’s fortunes, if not we may face an even more serious crisis.