Last week’s summit involved no significant breakthrough on any of the major issues facing the European Union. While there are very important policies being rolled-out or discussed at the moment they were not on the agenda – rendering the summit itself more of a sideshow than a main event.
A defining feature of the last four years has been the government’s non-stop effort to spin everything and to cynically ignore many wider issues which have a big impact here.
Developments in Europe have been absolutely central to our economic pick-up yet no member of the government has ever acknowledged this. There have been banal generalities about wanting Europe to do well, but the direct impact of European decisions on what has happened here has been ignored.
This is important because our government keeps missing opportunities and is denying the people the opportunity to see what could and should be done to relieve debt pressures.
For this summit a lot of work went in to briefing the media about the Taoiseach’s agenda but we actually know less today than before the summit. In different so-called exclusives the Taoiseach’s staff briefed that he was determined that there would be no pre-election Budget give-aways, that there would be major tax cuts and that he wanted the ability to spend up to €1½ billion more without breaking EU rules.
We were told that he was both against extra budget flexibility and in favour of it.
Which is it?
This is just a continuation of the same old trick of trying to be on both sides of the fence at the same time. This is a Taoiseach who voted against the majority of budget changes he now claims credit for: A Taoiseach who spent a decade condemning the failure to spend more and now condemns the fact that so much was spent.
I welcome the additional budget flexibility which has been extended to France and other countries. It reflects the reality of a weak European economy which cannot recover without investment. It is a pity that the German government did not also agree to play a part in the necessary flexibility by encouraging more domestic demand.
In a few months we will witness the next shot in our election campaign through the introduction of a Spring Budget Statement. This is an unprecedented use of the civil service to prepare a government’s election manifesto as it will set out four years’ worth of spending and tax proposals which have no administrative or legal status other than to serve as an election tool.
In fact the Taoiseach essentially admitted this when he said that it will show what Fine Gael and Labour would do if re-elected.
Clearly the decision to seek room for an additional €1½billion is the first move towards the Spring Statement and intended to allow the announcement of as many initiatives as possible.
The European semester process which the Taoiseach signed off on last week is designed to give transparency and certainty to policy. Because of the Taoiseach’s approach we are getting nothing of the sort.
A major question now is whether the government intends to ignore recently introduced legislation on budgetary and financial procedures. The Oireachtas has established the Fiscal Advisory Council to review economic projections and fiscal policy both before and after major announcements.
Why has it been excluded from the discussion? Why is the government proposing to announce four years of Budgets but not willing to have any outside consultation or review?
Yet again we have a case of the government having a public relations policy but no clear economic policy. A government which did not deliver recovery but did everything possible to make it as unfair as it could be.
The primary objective for the government is to claim credit for things and stop the more important debate of helping people to understand what has actually been happening. The Taoiseach continues to sell a fairy tale of his decisive actions and steely negotiating skills when the truth shows nothing of the sort.
In terms of the reduction in interest rates for all bailout loans to all countries, the reduction in borrowing costs and the vital policy changes of ECB President Draghi, unfortunately nothing in any of these decisions was influenced in any way by our government.
Reductions negotiated by others were automatically extended to Ireland – and were four times larger than what our government asked for. As the Taoiseach admitted at the time, he held no discussion with Mario Draghi before his appointment.
The implementation of a Quantitative Easing policy by the ECB in the face of the opposition of some countries is a decisive move by an organisation which is now willing to do whatever it legally can to try and spark a wider recovery. It is not enough and it is at best a short-term measure which carries some dangers – but Ireland should welcome it and call for other institutions to do more.
The failure of the Greek economy to recover is the most striking example of the need to change policies. It appears that all significant discussions last week took place in a smaller meeting, something which is not a good development.
The situation today is more serious than it has been at any point in the past 5 years.
Fianna Fáil has been arguing for the past two years that Greece needs further substantial action on its debt if it is to be given a credible path to growth. This is not to say that Greece should be allowed do whatever it wants with other people’s money, but there is a need for a long-term solution.
The evidence is that such a solution is not close. In fact, it is now reasonable to ask whether Syriza wants to find a solution or is just trying to manage the blame-game for when the full crisis comes.
The Syriza-led government’s actions in recent weeks have not shown that they are committed to finding a solution which respects other countries.
They are fully entitled to seek to end austerity – equally they promised before election that they had a detailed reform plan ready to implement and that they knew exactly how to ease the debt burden but not endanger Greece’s commitments to the Euro and the EU.
The failure to produce even the most basic reform plan is striking. Slogans which get a crowd going are not the same thing as policies which can be implemented. Wiring tourists to catch VAT fraud is not an initiative which will deliver the type of revenue Greek public services need.
It is reported that Prime Minister Tsipras even objected at the summit to international inspectors being able to check the current status of Greece’s government accounts – claiming that this was an affront to sovereignty. He did so in spite of the fact that every member of the IMF has been subject to this scrutiny since the organisation was founded.
The new policy of aggressively attacking and insulting other governments may well simply be part of managing a diverse range of party factions. Whatever the origins it is undermining the possibility of building a consensus for helping Greece.
The statement by a minister that Greece would “unleash” immigrants on Europe if it if didn’t get what it was asking for was not only wrong it was playing to the worst type of fears currently being exploited by extremists throughout the continent. Another minister said that Greece wants €350 billion in reparations for past wars – including within this €20bn supposedly still owed under the Treaty of Versailles.
This is the type of rhetoric designed to create divisions not to persuade.
It is clear that the new government has a mandate to change direction, but other governments also have democratic mandates – they also have the right to represent the interests of their people.
It appears that the Eurogroup is willing to change the terms of Greek debts quite significantly – and in doing so lift the short and medium term impact of these debts. What is not yet clear is whether Greece actually wants to negotiate.
For the sake of the people of Greece we should all hope that what we have been seeing is temporary. Prime Minister Tsipras’ letter of last week saying that Greece is running out of money is sobering.
It may well be that an agreement cannot be reached, but it would serve everyone’s interests if the sloganeering and aggression were put aside for a few weeks and there was a genuine effort to find one.
I welcome the fact that the summit discussed and refused to lift current sanction on Russia for its invasion and partition of Ukraine. The real substances of the Minsk Accords revolve around whether Russia will allow Ukraine to regain control of its own international border.
It is ominous that the Russian-installed rebel leaders announced last week that they want Russia to lead a so-called peace-keeping mission to Donetsk and Luhansk. They have rejected the proposal that a genuinely independent peacekeeping force from the United Nations or OSCE be sent, and they continue to deny OSCE monitors access to many areas.
In the four other frozen conflicts which have involved the de-facto partitioning of states formerly under the imperial control of Russian the installation of Russian peace-keepers has been the moment when the sovereignty of the state was ended in the enclave. In the occupied parts of Georgia this has gone even further.
The sanctions have had an impact. Kremlin-linked oligarchs are the ones who have suffered the most and the sanctions have shown that Europe is not willing to simply do nothing in the face of the invasion and partition of Ukraine.
We should also note that the deterioration of human rights in Crimea continues. Two people have been convicted for the crime of flying the Ukrainian flag. The Tartar minority is being suppressed. Freedom of speech is disappearing.
In the face of this President Putin has confirmed that he and the Russian state invaded Crimea before the illegitimate referendum.
He has also continued his recent bullying policy towards other states making trial bombing runs against a number of neutral states including Ireland and Sweden. At the weekend his government announced that Denmark would be the target of nuclear attacks if it went ahead with a missile shield.
Sinn Fein has of course maintained its policy of refusing to stand with Ukraine against its partition by Russia. It continues to use the weasel words of blaming the United States and Europe while steadfastly refusing to make the simple statement that Russia should get out of Ukraine.
As predicted a fortnight ago the massed ranks of Sinn Fein representatives that went to the United States last week did not repeat their attack on the Obama administration while they were busy collecting cheques.
Deputy Adams even took the time to have a hissy fit over the fact that the administration wasn’t making a senior enough official available to receive him in Washington.
It remains the case that there is an extremist alliance in Europe standing with Russia against the citizens of neighbouring countries. Last week a Kremlin-funded group held a conference in St Petersburg where the British National Party, Golden Dawn of Greece and other fascist parties spoke up in favour of Putin’s actions. At the weekend the French National Front used an €8 million soft loan from Russia to fund regional election campaigns.
There is in fact almost no hard right or hard left party in Europe which does not support the increasingly authoritarian and aggressive Putin regime.
I should say that Deputy Boyd Barret need not take this as applying to him as he did in our last session. He is unusual in the Irish left as having protested outside the Russian embassy in the past. However he too is guilty of applying false equivalences in this case. Nothing Europe has done in any way justifies what Russia has done to Ukraine.
The Ukrainian people want to live in a free, united, democratic and European country. They have voted for this time and again – and they have voted for the EU association agreement in overwhelming numbers. They gave up their nuclear weapons in return for a promise that their borders would be respected.
It is our duty to stand with them and we should support a significant expansion in direct aid.
In relation to energy, the summit moved the agenda along in a formal way. It is not yet an active or urgent enough agenda to tackle the twin crises of climate change and energy blackmail.