The Irish Times, the eurozone and the plebs
Big things are happening in a big week for Irish and European politics and, let’s be honest, most of us don’t really understand what’s happening, or why. The budget to be unveiled today and tomorrow will need to cut spending and increase taxes because of the banks, or something. The European summit being held on Friday will save or discard the euro, and radically reshape the EU, because of the bond markets, or something. The deliberative processes underlying both projects are far removed from the lives and concerns of ordinary citizens; fatalistically awaiting the pronouncements of the actual decision-makers seems to be our lot.
Insofar as the budget goes, this is actually fair enough: you cast your vote, your representatives emerge and your government is formed to govern until the next election. In between, to try to govern by some imagined public consensus, to steer a course by the uncertain stars of opinion poll and Twitter trend, is a receipe for populism and executive paralysis. Our TDs, for well-canvassed psephological reasons, have always inclined to the view that opinions are for voters to express - via Joe Duffy, the Irish Daily Mail and misspelled constituents’ letters - and for parliamentarians to run with. But the baying of the mob is not a sound basis for good governance.
Irish public figures could have benefitted over the years from listening more closely to one of their illustrious forebears, Edmund Burke, whose Speech to the Electors of Bristol remains the classic statement of the MP’s right and duty to be guided by his own, informed opinion, even if this conflicts with the express wishes of his electorate. A little more aloof paternalism might have brought a crop of TDs more willing to challenge the doomed consensus that helped inflate the bubble.
But this can only go so far, and the Irish Times (naturally) would take judicious flouting of the popular will beyond the Pale. Stephen Collins, discussing the ramifications of a eurozone exit, makes the following extraordinary statement:
“Over the next few months, if all goes well, there will be agreement at EU level to a series of binding budgetary disciplines. This will probably require treaty change and, even though that may result in a bitter referendum, it is very much in Ireland’s interest that it happens. In the long run, such a development will ensure the Irish people will be saved from a repeat of the economic indiscipline and political incompetence that characterised the Bertie Ahern years.”
Now, the government led by Bertie Ahern may well have been indisiplined and incompetent. But the implication of this passage is that submitting our financial affairs to the scrutiny and (possible) veto of the EU is the best – perhaps only - way to avoid a repeat meltdown ”in the long run”. The future financial policy of any Irish government is presented as a ticking timebomb.
This presupposes a complete inability of Irish people to run their own country properly. In effect, Collins would have us transfer significant new powers – amounting perhaps to a complete and permanent surrender of economic sovereignty – to the EU, not because this serves the greater good, but because, left to ourselves, we’ll only bugger it up.
It’s a sinister implication, anti-democratic and cynical. A country cannot realistically be governed by popular will alone, but nor can it be legitimately governed by giving up on representative democracy and handing the hard decisions over to centralised European control.
Even if we shrug aside these fundamental objections, it’s hard to say whether or not we would be better off in or out of a new, financially integrated eurozone. Certainly, as Collins notes, attempting to pay off our load of euro-demoninated debt in some devalued punt nua would be extremely costly, and therefore exiting the euro would have to happen simultaneously with another radical move: default on sovereign debt, à la Argentina in 2002.
As I noted at the outset, these arguments are complex, and if such are the stark choices that are going to emerge out of this week’s discussions, politics isn’t going to get any simpler for a while yet. I would simply hope that our decisions flow freely, not from fear of our own inherent incompetence.