A piece written with Niamh de Barra for the CrisisJam Fiscal Treaty Referendum special.
I didn’t know why I was voting No, exactly. There were a few reasons, a nebulous fog of them, swirling around the pit of my gut and pulsing in my temples.
So, I decided to turn it on its head, think outside the box, innovate, get real in the real world. I went looking for reasons to vote ‘Yes’ and found jobs, stability, growth, and lots of talk of confidence that didn’t inspire any.
The Irish Exporters’ Association tells us that a Yes vote will give:
“Confidence to Irish exporters many customers in the eurozone” (sic)
The American Chamber of Commerce spells out VOTE YES with the first letter of each of its reasons for doing just that – perhaps trying to twee us into acquiescence. For the E in YES we get:
“Ensure confidence in Ireland’s ability to restore growth.”
‘[B]y demanding that EZ [Eurozone] countries hit a series of budget deficit and debt targets, the fiscal compact addresses the EZ debt crisis but does nothing to address the banking crisis, balance of payments crisis or growth crisis in the region.[…]All the fiscal compact does is institutionalize the idea that all other countries in the EZ need to look more like Germany in terms of fiscal responsibility. The EZ periphery will have to make all of the adjustment while the core makes none, ensuring that the weaker EZ countries will go even deeper into recession.’
The above by way of advocating a Yes vote in Ireland. A circuitous route to ‘why you must vote Yes’, right enough – one, you might say, that doesn’t inspire much confidence at all. The kernel of her argument is Ireland’s likely need to access the ESM (European Stability Mechanism), that last bastion between us and an empty ATM. You may go deeper into recession, but at least you’ll have access to money, in theory, lent at high rates of interest (one can only presume, and hope to be wrong) from a legally unaccountable (see Articles 32 and 35 of the Treaty Establishing the ESM) ‘stability mechanism’. Which you will have to contribute to in five payments of at least €250-odd million (regardless of the result of the referendum). And which might be used up by, for instance, a loan to Spain before Ireland had any access to it. Questions have been raised too about the allocation of such a loan from the ESM, were Ireland to get one. Would it go the ‘the public purse’, to spend on social programmes, health, education, and to enrich the lives of the citizens of the country, or would it be another gift to the banking sector?
‘It is essential that any ﬁnancial assistance [from the ESM] will be subject to very strict macroeconomic policy conditionality and be granted on non-concessional terms… Financial assistance will only be granted if the country in question implements an adjustment programme capable of redressing the situation. Such an adjustment programme will in general include ﬁscal consolidation measures and structural reforms that address labour and product market rigidities, thereby improving the growth potential of the economy.’
For which read: cuts in government spending, erosion of labour rights and further attacks on wages. In other words, more of the last four years for another few. Possibly forever, in endless cycles of policy conditionality and bailouts – given how successful our last austerity-driven ‘fiscal consolidation’ has been in ‘improving the growth potential’ of our economy. And all while making it harder for future governments to spend in order to stimulate growth. (All of which points don’t begin to address the question of whether or not consecrating GDP as the definitive basis for making socio-economic decisions is a good idea in the first place.)
This treaty seeks to further validate a particular way of approaching social and economic life – one that protects and privileges the powerful and wealthy, and especially the very powerful and the verywealthy, at the expense of everyone else – and to enshrine it in the legal structure of the EU. The 5% increase in the number of people with €700,000 or more of ‘investible assets’ in this country between 2009 and 2010 was no aberration; nor was it just a statistically improbable spike in Lotto winners. We’ve watched, horrified, as the reality of trickle up economics became brutally apparent over the past four years – do we really want to enshrine a policy approach that abets that in our Constitution without at least a murmur? To buy the lie that it was fiscal profligacy that brought us to this pass, and that with a bit of ‘good housekeeping’ everything will be ok?
If we (collectively, as a nation, as you do) have learned anything from the last few years, we’d be advised to scrutinise the financial advice we get, and scrutinise it well. You wouldn’t expect a right-wing government to care about ‘people’ – some of whom may not even be ‘taxpayers’ (just VAT-payers). The treaty talks about ‘economic growth through advanced convergence and competitiveness’. Debt reduction targets and twice yearly Euro Summit meetings are the answer. There is no acknowledgement of a bigger picture, and needless to say, people – on whose backs this ‘competitiveness’ will be built – don’t come into it. People are simply human capital, after all. Ratification of this treaty means that ‘fiscal discipline’ (read, austerity) will be written into our Constitution, and subsequent governments will be bound by it also. The neo-liberalising push will continue to cut wages, erode workers’ rights, impose penalties for poverty.
There is a fight on now – here in Ireland, and right across Europe. Transnational corporations, financial institutions included, are amassing vast amounts of power and wealth, and they won’t let go of either easily. The suits in hairdos that we elect every few years seem pretty irrelevant in themselves, but they have shown themselves both diligent and efficient in furthering the cause of those same business and financial institutions. This treaty has been scripted and crafted in their interests first, and only secondarily (if at all) in ours.
But the Irish bank guarantee and the subsequent realisation of its consequences (‘You mean our childrens’ children as well?’), as well as the global Occupy movement, the Uncut movement, and more, have put ideas into circulation that will not go away, and (as happens with ideas) the more out and about they are, the more they grow. More and more people distrust, even despise, the banks, the markets and, increasingly, EU institutions but… who else fills the ATMs? Makes your debit card work? Who facilitates your getting paid every week or month (by an employer or the Department of Social Protection)? Stories of outright theft and obese salaries sour the public mood, but, we ask, what can we do? Our hands our tied, what can we do?
We can start by voting No to this treaty. It won’t fix our zombie banks, or end austerity tomorrow (or next year, or the year after that); it won’t put an end to trickle up economics, or stop the Goldman Sachses of this world in their tracks; but it might throw up a stumbling block, cause a diversion, and open up the possibility for some – at least some – change. The alternative is to keep to a path that has been socially and economically devastating, here and across Europe, and to throw up a constitutional wall between us and any alternative routes.
Change is not easy – if it was, it would have happened already – and real change doesn’t happen quickly. Sometimes – often – a cynical quip comes more easily (and is funnier) than, ‘Hey, you know, another world is possible.’
But. Still. It is.
Image top: duncan.