Democrats should be mobilising to resist
The Government seems determined to push ahead in the next few months with the ratification of two important treaties: the “Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union” and the revised “Treaty on the European Stability Mechanism.”
The two treaties would make member-states of the euro zone into regimes of economic austerity, involving deeper and deeper cuts in public expenditure, increases in indirect taxes, reductions in wages, sustained liberalisation of markets, and the privatisation of public property.
It would really be more accurate to call the first treaty the EU Permanent Austerity Treaty and the second the Conditional Support Treaty. But whatever they are called, the two treaties represent a seriously dangerous threat, and democrats should be mobilising to resist them.
The cumulative effect of being bound by both treaties would be an obligation to insert a balanced-budget rule “through provisions of binding force and permanent character, preferably constitutional or otherwise guaranteed to be fully respected and adhered to throughout the national budgetary processes,” to put Irish budgets under permanent and detailed euro-zone supervision, to make the existing subordination of Ireland’s interests to those of the “stability of the euro area as a whole” even more systematic and pronounced, to impose conditions of “strict conditionality,” without limit, for ESM “solidarity” financial bail-outs, and to require Ireland to contribute some €11 billion to the ESM fund when it is established later this year.
The European Commission and the European Central Bank are obsessed with “economic governance,” which would require smaller euro-zone states in particular to make themselves permanently amenable to a regime under which Germany and its allies would regularly and permanently vet members’ fiscal policies and impose punitive fines on those failing to observe deflationary budget rules.
When politicians like Enda Kenny urge us to stomach a particular draconian measure while claiming that it would help us to ultimately “restore economic sovereignty” they conveniently fail to mention that this is the sort of “economic sovereignty” they have in mind. For them, permanent austerity plus the IMF is “national shame”; permanent austerity minus the IMF is “national recovery.” The latter is what is on offer through the EU Permanent Austerity and Conditional Support Treaties.
Of course it is totally irrelevant to this Eurofanatical mindset that the draconian fiscal measures imposed on Greece have only worsened the problems of that country. Also conveniently ignored in this version is that Ireland in the euro zone had to adopt unsuitably low interest rates in the early 2000s, because these suited Germany at the time. In the immortal words of Bertie Ahern, this made our “Celtic Tiger” boom “boomier.” It of course inflated the property bubble.
The former Taoiseach John Bruton and others have contended that the failure of the European Central Bank to supervise adequately the credit policy of the national central banks in relation to the commercial banks in Ireland and various other euro-zone countries was significantly responsible for the emergence of asset bubbles in those countries in the early and middle 2000s, and thereby contributed hugely to the financial crisis they are now in.
And the then head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, was probably engaging in a variety of “economic governance” when he told Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan on 29 September 2008, at the time of the criminally irresponsible blanket bank guarantee, that Anglo-Irish Bank must on no account be allowed to go bust and that the foreign creditors and bond-holders must be paid every penny.
When the Irish people ratified the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, setting up economic and monetary union, and when they ratified the Lisbon Treaty, establishing the European Union on a new constitutional basis in 2009, they approved membership of an economic and monetary union whose memberstates would follow rules that would be enforced by a system of Commission surveillance, formal recommendations, and warnings for delinquent states, followed by sanctions in the form of compulsory deposits and fines of an appropriate size in the event of member-states persisting in breaches of these provisions.
The EU member-states adopted the rule regarding 3 per cent and 60 per cent of GDP to ensure that member-states of the euro zone would avoid excessive deficits and consequent borrowing, for that would affect all euro-zone states using the same currency. But the excessive-deficit articles were not enforced once Germany, France and others states broke the excessive-deficit limits in the early 2000s.
Recommendations of measures to repair excessive deficits were made by the Commission to a number of member-states, including Ireland, in the early 2000s, but when in 2003 France and Germany found themselves in violation of the excessive-deficit criteria the Council failed to take any of the other steps set out in the rules to remedy their breaches.
No proposal to impose sanctions for breaking the rules was ever put by the Commission to the Council of Ministers, and no sanctions were adopted against countries violating the rules. As a result, several member-states ran up huge annual government deficits and national public debts that were near to, or in some cases well over, 100 per cent of GDP.
Is debt always a bad thing? Obviously not in the private sector, as corporations regularly borrow money for expenditure they don’t want to meet out of retained earnings, while most households aim to have a long-term mortgage.
Public debt is not a burden passed on from one generation to the next. The stock of public debt is a problem only when its servicing—i.e. the payment of interest—is unaffordable, such as when, in times of recession, growth is nil or negative, or when the interest rates demanded by the financial market are soaring.
The question is, when is the debt sustainable?
Sustainability means keeping the ratio of debt to GDP stable in the longer term. If GDP at the beginning of the year is €1,000 billion and the Government’s total stock of debt is €600 billion, the debt ratio is 60 per cent. The fiscal deficit is the extra borrowing that the Government makes in a year, so it adds to the stock of debt. But although the stock of debt may be rising, as long as GDP is rising proportionately the ratio of debt to GDP can be kept constant, or may even be falling.
The rule is that as long as the real economy is growing by at least as much as the real rate of interest on debt the debt-GDP ratio doesn’t rise. This holds true irrespective of whether the debt ratio is 60 per cent or 600 per cent.
But there’s a catch. In a modern economy the public sector accounts for about half the economy. If a country panics about its debt ratio and cuts back sharply on public-sector spending, this reduces aggregate demand and may lead to stagnation or even recession. When a country stops growing, financial markets decide that its debt ratio may rise and so become more cautious about lending and may demand a higher bond yield, i.e. interest rate.
The gloomy prophecy of growing public indebtedness becomes self-fulfilling. The way out cannot be greater austerity.
What works for a single household or firm doesn’t work for the economy as a whole. A household can tighten its belt by spending less, saving more, and thus “balancing the books”; but an economy cannot. If everybody saves more, national income falls. As no euro-zone country can devalue, to ask each member-state to balance the books by running an export surplus is empirically and logically impossible.
The way out of the “debt trap” is the same as the way out of recession: if the private sector won’t invest, the public sector must become the investor of last resort. It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing, or redistribution (some combination of the three would be optimal). What matters is growth.
Why there must be a referendum
The contracting parties must apply the balanced-budget rule “through provisions of binding force and permanent character, preferably constitutional or otherwise guaranteed to be fully respected and adhered to throughout the national budgetary processes.”
A majority of the Supreme Court in the Crotty case in 1987 (which found that a referendum was necessary to ratify significant changes to EU treaties) held that an organ of the state cannot agree to circumscribe or restrict any unfettered power conferred on it by the Constitution.
In the judgement Mr Justice Walsh said that the freedom to form economic policy was an aspect of the state’s sovereignty. This meant that article 3 (1) would have to be protected by article 29.4 of the Constitution, which ratified the Maastricht Treaty, if it was to be constitutionally valid.
However, article 29 refers to treaties of the European Union, whereas the proposed treaty will only be a treaty agreed between 25 of the 27 member-states, so it will not be covered by article 29.
These rules and policy conditions in turn provide considerable scope for financially hard-pressed member-states to be pressured to take steps against their national interest, including in relation to harmonising corporate taxes. Establishing this permanent enhanced fiscal architecture would be a major step towards an EU fiscal and political union—something that has been recognised in statements by leading EU politicians.
This implies a significant diminution of national state sovereignty, going well beyond the scope of the existing European Union and the monetary union that it embodies, which only the people themselves can agree to.
The absence of limitations on the “strict conditionality” that will mark financial disbursements from the proposed ESM fund—such as might have been set out in an accompanying protocol, for instance—emphasises further the dangers to the state’s interests that could arise from harsh or excessively onerous conditions attaching to financial assistance that might be offered to member-states seeking assistance from the fund.