Over the next few months there will be a lot of debate on the ratification of the Fiscal Treaty which the Taoiseach agreed to on Monday. This is already shaping up to be a destructive process solely focussed mainly on the form of ratification rather than on the future of Europe and our role in it. For the first time since we applied to join the Union fifty years ago, we begin this debate without basic information being publicly available and without even the most elementary consensus between parties who are positive to the EU.
There is a great danger that the approach to date and the pushing through of this Treaty without any public engagement will do lasting damage to the standing of the Union in Ireland. For the sake of rushing through this Treaty we could damage the possibility of ever again winning support for an EU initiative. Given that this Treaty commits us to a new major EU Treaty in the next few years, this is an urgent concern.
It has been a bad year for Europe. Never before have its citizens been in such need of assistance and never before has the Union seemed less able to provide it.
This is a defining moment in the Union’s history. In the face of an unprecedented crisis it must find new ways forward. Developments of longstanding policies simply aren’t good enough.
The public demand answers and it our duty in this House to speak both directly and constructively. We have to speak hard truths but also show people that we are pushing credible solutions. The flaws in the way this Treaty was negotiated, its contents and its ratification are so large that they have to be talked about. But we cannot leave it at that – we need something more positive.
I want to say to the Taoiseach directly that the items discussed and agreed on Monday are at very best a small step. No matter how good the presentation of it is, this treaty and the measures agreed on Monday do not show the public that a solution is in hand on Europe’s crisis.
The measures are not radical enough and they do not tackle the urgent need to reform the ECB and expand European investment. While commentators talk about a theoretical possibility of new flexibility, in reality there is nothing more on the Union’s agenda.
The approach to EU issues in this House since the election has involved more heat and less light. There is a lot more time available for speeches but there has been a refusal to provide information or respond to direct questions. We urgently need to change this. We need a genuine effort to find consensus amongst those who want the Union to work and need this effort to start now.
Before addressing the real substance of the summit, I would again say that the broad thrust of discussions on Monday about support for SME’s and redirecting funding is obviously to be welcomed. What’s not welcome is the attempt to over-spin their significance. Completing the Single Market in areas such as services will help the broader European economy in the medium-term, so hopefully this in-principle agreement will become something more definite in the near future.
As for the redirected Structural Funds, a similar reallocation has been a part of this funding for at least two decades. The reapportionment of funding not drawn-down is a basic principle of funding and has helped it to be highly effective in the fast. It is a process which Ireland has always benefitted from because our unfairly maligned public servants are amongst the most effective and efficient in Europe in implementing support programmes.
What is really needed is new funding which can help countries currently unable to invest in job creation in spite of growing unemployment.
If an initiative is not large enough to merit changing unemployment forecasts then it should not be presented as a major initiative. Over-claiming the significance of what was agreed on Monday will just feed disillusionment as people fail to see the impact of the measures in the near future.
We need a new Route forward
Over the last twelve months the European Council has held an unprecedented number of meetings. These meetings have mostly been held in the middle of a crisis and have always been followed by claims about decisive action and returning confidence.
After all of the effort which has been put into these meetings today we are faced with the fact that growth is falling, the cost of funding public services is rising and unemployment is at its highest ever level.
Take the statements following any of last year’s summits and compare them to what happened afterwards and it is clear that the European Council is failing. It is failing to restore confidence, it is failing to show leadership and, worst of all, it is failing to respect the spirit of solidarity on which the greatest international body in history was built.
The reason why it is failing is simple. This crisis involves radically new challenges yet the Council has tried to tackle them with a set of incremental changes to existing policies. Every initiative has been delayed and others have been pushed in the face of evidence that they were not working. At Europe’s hour of need its leaders have been timid and obsessed with domestic political manoeuvring.
The economic impact of this has been very serious. Confidence and the ability of states to invest for recovery have been undermined. Just as serious, and with the potential to cause long-term problems, has been serious damage to the standing of the Union with its citizens.
2011 saw the sustained destruction of public confidence in the EU. Since these issues began to be measured thirty five years ago, there has never been such a dramatic and concentrated fall in sentiment towards the EU. Only 19% believe that the Union is heading in the right direction while a majority say the opposite. This in not just about a Eurosceptic fringe, it is a factor throughout the Union – and most disturbingly it is now a factor in this country.
Measured against figures taken just before this government took up office, by last November the Irish public had moved suddenly to a negative view of Europe’s direction. Sentiment declined by an unprecedented 38%. During three years of crisis this sentiment had remained strong but it collapsed last year in the face of growing despair at the failures of Europe’s leaders.
The consensus in this country has consistently been that people believe in the EU as a positive force. This has not always been the same as supporting EU treaties, but the reflexive anti-EU suspicions of its consistent opponents have never been a mainstream view of citizens. My fear is that if we do not quickly restore trust and confidence in the Union then we run the risk of damaging its democratic legitimacy.
The old arguments and cries to just rally to the cause have nothing to offer. In fact they are making matters worse, because they seek to deny legitimate concerns.
Preparation of this Treaty
It is impossible to comment on the content of the agreed treaty without addressing the process by which it was developed and by which Ireland agreed to it.
At European level, even the most basic groundwork has not been done to show the logic behind individual provisions of this Treaty. Public debate was discouraged and a handful of bilateral summits were allowed to replace inclusive negotiations. The Taoiseach is not alone amongst his peers in having failed to undertake a detailed series of meetings with others.
Three years into an economic crisis a rising sovereign debt crisis made it clear that Europe needed new policies. It created bailout funds but struggled with the agenda of how to prevent the need for bailouts.
Policies which forced Ireland and then Portugal out of the bond markets have been continued – with other countries surviving only due to indirect and probably unsustainable support.
The lack of stronger fiscal controls did not cause the crisis, but the narrow agenda of one country has made it the main focus of the proposed solution. Given that Ireland would have comfortably met every provision of this Treaty in the decade before the crisis, no one has yet explained how the Treaty would have prevented it.
Negotiations were not inclusive and they fostered acrimony and a lack of ownership of the outcome. It should be a concern to everyone that this is the first time in the Union’s history that a Treaty will not be signed by all of its members.
At home this is the first time that no serious effort was made to seek input to Ireland’s negotiating objectives for a treaty and when these objectives were not outlined in detail for the public.
Well before December’s text was negotiated I wrote to the Taoiseach seeking engagement. He refused, saying that he saw no benefit from it. After he had already agreed the principles of the Treaty he called a meeting of all groups at which he gave no new information and has failed to follow-up a specific request from me for an analysis of the economic impact of what is proposed.
In contrast, previous governments of different make-ups were far more open. First of all parties were given the basic respect of separate meetings when they were sought. John Bruton and Dick Spring kept the Opposition fully informed in the Amsterdam Treaty negotiations. For the Constitutional Treaty and Lisbon the Opposition actually participated in the development of Ireland’s negotiating position.
The Taoiseach will know that during the consultations I held while preparing the revised Lisbon proposal I was fully open with his spokespeople. They were given repeated briefings and the ability to make submissions which were incorporated into government positions. Deputies Timmons and Costello made contributions to the final proposal and ensured that the mainstream pro-EU consensus survived.
If you want a constructive ratification debate you need to begin respecting the fact that there are legitimate, pro-EU reasons for being concerned about this Treaty.
We said last year, before any other party, that a core principle needed to be followed in relation to the ratification of this Treaty. If it involves any significant change the people should be consulted.
It has been clear for a long time that the government wanted to avoid a referendum at all costs and Ministers have briefed extensively that they expect to be told that a referendum is not required. Today’s newspapers reveal that the Taoiseach’s claim to have no concern about holding a referendum is nonsense. At all stages of the negotiating process the avoidance of a public vote was the primary objective for the government.
The Taoiseach is now backing himself into the corner of arguing that the Treaty is powerful enough to save the Euro but not significant enough to require a vote of the people. This approach is one which instinctively and rightly alienates people.
Is it not a terrible indictment of the leaders of Europe that the Irish courts will soon hear state lawyers argue that this is a treaty which is too insignificant to require a vote? Does it not say something deeply depressing that our government’s position is that an unprecedented crisis is being met within existing policies limits?
The Taoiseach is well aware that there were people pushing the idea of parliamentary ratification of the revised Lisbon proposal. I and others refused to agree to this because we saw that such a move could cause permanent damage to the public’s support for the EU. It was rightly decided to let the people decide.
This was a position supported by Fine Gael and Labour in this House and in the campaign. Sinn Fein was true to its forty year record of attacking every single EU Treaty change and worked to use the referendum to promote itself rather than any constructive proposal. The manoeuvring which we’ve seen from it and other anti-EU groups is entirely based on wanting to have something to campaign against.
My party yesterday commissioned an independent legal opinion which will deal with both the ratification process and, more importantly, the actual legal impact of the final text. However, there is a more fundamental point at issue here – can we stand over a process where the people have been excluded at every stage of the negotiation and ratification process? The public has not only not been consulted they have been ignored. Equally, the major policy omissions in the Treaty are also too big to ignore.
If this Treaty is the end the debate on the structural reform of the economic and monetary rules of the European Union then the public must be consulted. It is clear that you will come back in a few weeks to say that ratification through the Oireachtas is likely to survive the various legal challenges which will immediately be launched. The question for you is are you willing to come back with a much more significant proposal which shows the people that they are being listened to.
Ireland Must Support Stronger Actions
I’ve said consistently before that our major problem with the Treaty is that it does not go far enough. It elevates a side issue, the imposition of fiscal controls, to a central position and ignores the agenda Europe really needs.
We support a significant increase in the economic role of the European Union. In response to the crisis we believe that Ireland has favour greater federalism in key areas. This marks a departure from Ireland’s position over the last twenty years but it is the only reasonable way to respond to the crisis.
There are two major reforms without which this crisis will not be overcome and the predictions of long-term austerity will come through.
The ECB is designed for the German economy of the 1970s. It has failed as a central bank for a diverse currency union. The need to change its mandate and expand its bond buying options is more important than any single item on our national agenda.
Greater fiscal union, which we support in-principle, can only work if it involves a commitment to significant transfers within the union. A Union which controls a budget of 1% of collective income is not and will not be a fiscal Union. We need to challenge the advocates of a control-led solution. Without increased investment there will be no growth.
These items were not seriously discussed in preparing the Treaty. They were not pushed by Ireland or other countries who were intimidated by the strength of the fiscal control agenda.
Renewing Public Confidence
If we want to renew public confidence in the Union then we must renew our approach to working together on European policy. The lengthy tradition of the pro-EU parties consulting on the national approach to negotiations was abandoned and there has been too much partisanship.
I want to appeal to you directly Taoiseach to work on forging a new pro-EU consensus. A consensus which is based on taking the people’s fears seriously and which promotes an agenda ambitious enough to tackle a crisis of this scale.
As I have said repeatedly during the last year, I believe in the great European ideal as the best and perhaps only route to sustained prosperity for the people of Ireland and Europe. I am the only party leader to have gone beyond generalities and actually set out an economic case for saving the Euro.
My party’s gut reaction to the European Union has always been and will always be that we see it as a solution not a problem. We see it as empowering sovereignty not threatening it. Our core instinct is to support common initiatives even if we think they are not perfect. We will not take any position which we think will damage the standing of the EU and its ability to work on behalf of its citizens.
Instead of letting Monday be the point from which everyone is summonsed to take opposing positions, we need a real discussion about the way forward.
This Treaty must become as a part of a wider series of urgent initiatives which are capable of tackling the crisis. Because no wider action agenda has been promoted, the Treaty is currently a stand-alone measure and the end of a process. If you agree that any solution to the economic crisis must involve the EU then you cannot keep to this position. It would be a betrayal of the hopes and urgent needs of the citizens of this state and the Union as a whole.
There is no credibility in promising that something will eventually happen once the Treaty ratified. It must also not be ratified in a way that is dismissive of the public.
Once we lose the foundation of pro-EU sentiment amongst the people we won’t get it back. Once we use legal devices to avoid any public consultation on the Treaty it will be almost impossible to get more urgent changes adopted.