By Hugo Brady, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
Ireland will elect a new government on February 25th to replace a discredited administration loathed by most Irish voters. At first sight, it seems unlikely the election will re-open the fundamentals of a bail-out agreed with fellow eurozone members and the IMF last November. The last act of Fianna Fáil, the main party in government since 1997, was to translate the terms of that deal into an initial set of tax hikes and further public spending cuts before leaving office. Nonetheless, the poll – Ireland’s most important for decades – marks a shift in hostility towards the bail-out and the EU in general which its partners would be foolish to ignore.
European benefactors might express shock that Irish attitudes towards the EU have worsened in the wake of the bail-out. To many EU leaders – including José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission – they are helping to rescue a country where politicians and regulators, through incompetence or worse, allowed bankers and developers to drive the economy to ruin using other people’s money. That view is correct but cloistered. It takes no account of the part played by the introduction of the euro itself – at a low interest rate hitherto unknown in Ireland – in inflating a runaway property boom. And Ireland’s eurozone partners (along with Britain) do expect their money back at a profit, having – they hope – secured the common currency and the unwise investments of their own banks in the process.
Furthermore, the Irish version of events differs sharply from that of its partners, even when adjusted for the natural reluctance of any country to blame itself for its own woes. Most Irish people feel that the rest of the eurozone and European Central Bank imposed a bail-out that their country did not need (Ireland could have limped on until mid-2011 despite its astronomical debts) at an interest rate that it could not afford (5.8 per cent) in an ultimately futile attempt to contain a wider crisis. With a decade of austerity ahead and with no option to default, Ireland’s voters gape in disbelief at new demands by continental politicians that it must now raise its low corporation tax rate. By the end of the year, Ireland will have lost 300,000 jobs from a labour market of 2.1 million. The country needs to retain foreign investment as a matter of economic survival.
Perhaps popular disenchantment was always unavoidable, but attitudes amongst Ireland’s traditionally pro-EU elites have hardened too. Michael Noonan, the finance spokesperson of Fine Gael – an unambiguously pro-European Christian Democratic party and the one likely to form the bulk of the next government – has characterised the bail-out agreement as being forced on a punch-drunk government by lordly EU and IMF negotiators. Eamon Gilmore, the Irish Labour leader, whose party is likely to secure the finance portfolio in a new coalition, has also demanded a re-negotiation of the terms of the agreement, saying the bail-out “clearly won’t work. It provides no scope for the Irish economy to grow.” Even Fianna Fáil – now under a far more effective leader in Micheál Martin, the former foreign affairs minster – will repudiate the agreement in time. And independent commentators in the media and respected think-tanks such as the Economic and Social Research Institute wonder aloud how Ireland will remain a euro country while extricating itself from its current situation.
Irish politics manages to fuse an Italian-style localism, ebullience and idiosyncrasy with the British parliamentary model. Ireland’s politicians are usually uninterested in ideology, intensely sensitive to local concerns and poor at strategic thinking, one reason why they were unable to think past the boom. But popular Irish attitudes to national sovereignty closely mirror those of its nearest neighbour. In Britain, euroscepticism became a truly potent political force in the wake of the UK’s forced exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Since then, pro-Europeans in Britain have dwindled to a small group of progressives. There is every reason to believe that the new generation of Irish politicians entering the scene at this election will view Ireland’s difficulties with the euro as the ERM crisis for slow-learners. A flotilla of long-serving parliamentarians are bowing out of politics at this election in favour of younger candidates.
All of this matters doubly because – unlike Britain – Ireland has held a referendum on the future of European integration on average every four or five years since 1987. On the two occasions when Ireland has voted twice on the same treaty, Irish politicians were able to justify this by pointing to the fact that EU membership had been overwhelmingly beneficial to the country. Many voters now recall with bitterness how a desperate government assured them in October 2009 that a second vote on the Lisbon treaty would assist an imminent economic recovery. It will no longer be possible to be so categorial about Ireland’s relationship with the EU, also bearing in mind that the country will shortly become a net contributor to the European budget. And the current uncertainty over the fate of the euro itself shows that the EU’s constitutional future is by no means settled, as many had hoped when Lisbon was finally ratified.
Make no mistake: it is Ireland’s politicians, not the EU, that will rightly be in the firing line on February 25th. But although Ireland may never again be able to serve as an unqualified European success story, the collapse of pro-European sentiment there could well come back to haunt the EU in future. In the 1990s, the IMF learned in Latin America that it is often wise to launch a charm offensive when a new government comes into power in a recipient country undergoing harsh economic adjustment. Ireland’s eurozone partners and the ECB would be well advised to follow a similar approach by pre-empting the incoming government’s demand for a renegotiation with an offer to lower the interest rate for loans needed to sustain the public finances. In time, the sparing of Irish blushes may save those of many others.