From his earliest days in office the Taoiseach has consistently refused to be open about fundamental policy issues. The public and media get the spin but the reality is hidden away – often shielded by the aggressive withholding of documents and the reduction of parliamentary questions to a farce. This is true through nearly every part of government, but it is especially true of the government’s approach to vital European discussions.
For months the government has been claiming publicly that it wants a generous and fair settlement of Greece’s debt problems. Yet yesterday, behind closed doors, our government took a leading role in threatening to effectively collapse the Greek banking sector unless Greece immediately toed the line. This was a position so extreme that even the ECB rejected it.
As reported extensively yesterday and again this morning, Minister Noonan argued strongly and repeatedly that Greece be forced to introduce capital controls before the ongoing liquidity support provided for Greek banks could be continued. By every analysis, capital controls have been identified as a first formal step toward Greece leaving the Eurozone and as a signal of a dramatic escalation of the crisis.
In this he was the principal supporter of Mr Schauble, the German Minister of Finance. Mr Schauble’s position is a clear one – and it is more extreme than Chancellor Merkel’s. He is against concessions to Greece, indifferent towards its place in the Euro and one of those who took a damaging position towards Ireland’s interests in the past.
That our government would side with him against Greece is a disgrace.
At the very moment that the Greek government was finally tabling significant measures to bridge the gap with international lenders our government decided supported ratcheting-up the crisis.
What’s even worse is that our government sided with a small minority of hard-line states whose position was decisively rejected by the meeting.
The ECB is no soft touch in the Greek negotiations. It has an extremely poor and at times disastrous policy record relating to individual support programmes for countries.
Yet even the ECB rejected the extreme position which Minister Noonan took on behalf of Ireland yesterday.
Obviously the Taoiseach has been very grateful to Chancellor Merkel for helping him during our last election and he has refused to ever challenge the German government’s policies, but this marks a move to a far more craven and unacceptable phase.
No doubt Minister Noonan will come up with some homespun way of trying to claim that he was actually doing the opposite of what the record shows. This is an act which is no longer fooling anyone but the most gullible.
The Taoiseach has a duty to explain the behaviour of Minister Noonan yesterday – to explain why, at such a sensitive moment, his government supported escalating the crisis at the very moment when a breakthrough had become possible.
I and my party have been very consistent over the past four years in saying that Greece needs some further debt relief if it is to have a credible route back to long-term growth. This remains the case. The debt restructuring which was carried out up to now has been enough to kick the can down the road but not enough to deal with the problem.
The effort of the Greek government to secure a reduction in the impact of its debts is reasonable and it is one that we should be supporting rather than joining the hard-line effort to say No to everything.
Certainly it is the case that the new government in Athens has been unreliable and damaging in the tactics it has used. Regularly abusing those you are negotiating with, denouncing them as criminals and failing to engage in detailed discussions are not behaviours which serve anyone’s interests.
Syriza has a democratic mandate to seek to reduce the debt and austerity. This mandate however also includes the contradictory promise to abide by the rules of membership of the Eurozone – and it does not remove the right of other countries and international institutions to disagree.
“Shut up and give us your money” is a negotiating tactic which has proven disastrous so far.
What is also not reasonable is the effort of the Syriza government to reject any reforms at all – or to give any commitments in return for billions in other people’s money.
The indication now is that they have finally tabled a serious proposal. This has survived the Schauble/Noonan effort yesterday which could have effectively torpedoed it before any real discussions.
At the summit on Thursday and Friday Ireland has a duty to stand on the side of giving Greece a chance. Now that there is a real engagement and an effort to provide credible commitments in return for the release of €7 billion in funding, Ireland should speak up in favour of doing whatever is possible to get a deal finalised.
The Taoiseach must end the policy of sucking-up to the hard-line elements in Chancellor Merkel’s party. It has delivered nothing for Ireland and nothing for Europe.
The Taoiseach should be an advocate for sustainable debt relief for Greece. Unfortunately there appears to be zero likelihood of this happening.
Quite simply the Taoiseach has refused to advocate reasonable debt relief for Ireland, so he will clearly not do anything to help another country.
In a four and a half year record of unprecedented spin and misdirection, this government’s actions relating to Europe stand out.
Next week we will reach the third anniversary of the day that the Taoiseach emerged from a summit in Brussels covering himself in praise for having, he claimed, secured a “game changer” concerning bank-related debt.
He and his ministers claimed that billions were potentially on the way.
At a press conference dominated by Ministers Noonan and Howlin giggling about how they had just brought home the goose which would be laying golden eggs, it was speculated that Ireland might get over €30 billion in debt relief.
Three years later we have got exactly nothing.
But this is not the worst of it. The facts show that our government hasn’t asked for debt relief and has not even mentioned the topic for the last two years.
Over a lengthy period Fianna Fáil has been working to find evidence of what the government has done in terms of the Taoiseach’s claimed ‘game changer’ on debt relief. As usual, no information has been provided via Parliamentary Questions so we have had to submit a range of Freedom of Information requests.
It was revealed yesterday by The Journal that under this government the Department of the Taoiseach has dramatically reduced the amount of information it is willing to release under Freedom of Information. In spite of this we have been able to put together the basic picture.
Government papers reveal that a deadline of October 2012 was originally set for achieving debt relief.
The last time the Taoiseach made direct contact with a European leader about debt was in October 2013 when he contacted then Council President Van Rumpoy.
Since then there has been silence.
Yet the evidence of the justice of Ireland’s case for Europe to share the cost of bank recapitalisation has actually grown stronger.
European institutions and member states insisted on a course of action which limited Ireland’s options and increased its cost. There is no doubt about.
It is something the Taoiseach himself has acknowledged only once in an unscripted comment made in Paris in October 2012.
Since then he simply will not say out loud that others should share in the cost of policies which were imposed on Ireland.
The only possible explanation for this is that it might get in the way of the party political narrative which Fine Gael wants to keep intact for electoral purposes.
The obsession of Fine Gael with the next election can be seen in the newspapers every day and in the government’s cowardice when it comes to challenging powerful people.
That it appears to have stopped them even publicly stating Ireland’s case for justice on its debts is something which is becoming clearer all the time.
The Greek situation will dominate the summit, but the discussion on the long-term governance of the Eurozone is just as important.
The Eurozone is badly flawed. No one can seriously question that, but the proposals currently under discussion do nothing whatsoever to address the most important flaws.
The lack of any ability to transfer resources from stronger regions to regions under pressure is a unique feature of the European single currency. There is no means of addressing embedded structural imbalances. The huge balance of payments surpluses in certain countries are just to be left in place. There is not even a request to them to do something about it.
Europe desperately needs a form of fiscal compact which is about helping each other not just controlling each other. Yet the Taoiseach is enthusiastically supporting a set of recommendations this week which double-down on a policy which says that structural changes alone are the route to growth.
What is extraordinary about this is that at home the Government has a perfect record of ignoring the advice of the Fiscal Advisory Council. It has undertaken no significant structural reforms and has bet on mass amnesia getting people to forget that Fine Gael and Labour voted against the majority of budget changes that they now try to claim credit for.
This government’s European policy is incoherent and serves no obvious Irish or European long-term interest.
Another example of this is the government’s policy towards the Tory party’s demand for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The Taoiseach has spoken at length about it but has managed to say nothing. He has held two meetings with Prime Minister Cameron but we have no idea what he might have said in these meetings other than the most banal generalities.
Of course Ireland wants Britain to remain in the European Union. However we should not want this at any cost.
Britain’s own review of the balance of competencies within the Union showed that the bulk of European powers help individual states to compete on a level playing field and give them fair access to trade. Just as importantly, it allows guarantees of basic working conditions and social supports.
Under no circumstance should Ireland support any proposal to turn the European Union away from these progressive policies which have helped Irish citizens more than most.
It also appears that key parts of the UK do not share the obsessive Euroscepticism of the Tories in England and the DUP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The position of the main parties in Scotland and Wales are very much in line with what should be our position.
At a minimum we deserve some honesty and openness from our government. What is Britain seeking and what does our government support in terms of future changes?
On balance Ireland should always be open to participating in trade agreements which open up new markets for companies based here. While the macro elements of TTIP look positive for Europe and Ireland we need to see more detail on it. However because of recent developments in the USA on the US/Pacific deal it is doubtful that anything will happen on TTIP until after the presidential election.
I think everybody in the House should acknowledge the work being done by the crew of the LE Eithne to prevent further loss of life and tragedy in the Mediterranean. They are bringing into a new area the proud record of Oglaigh na hÉireann especially in international humanitarian work. Their dedication should be commended.
There are no simple answers to the current refugee crisis. However it is obvious that a much more ambitious and generous approach to supporting human rights and growth in certain countries is needed.
The Syrian refugee crisis is one which continues to get worse. It is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world at the moment and Ireland should lead the calls for a response which is capable of helping millions of people who have already endured too much.
I welcome the decision to extend sanctions on Russia for its invasion, partition and continued destabilisation of Ukraine. I continue to find it amazing how parties which lecture us constantly on freedom and sovereignty continue to pander to the increasingly authoritarian Putin administration.
Sinn Fein’s vote against a European Parliament motion supporting Ukraine has been ignored in the Irish media but deserves closer attention.
The free and democratically elected government of Ukraine is showing a real commitment to reform, including launching the first credible anti-corruption drive in that country. Debt relief and a credible programme of support is what it now desperately needs.