Friday, October 25, 2013

What Have the Germans Ever Done for Us?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

She's in the Mayo colours -
how can she be that bad?
The Government are making a big deal of the budget being the “last austerity budget.” After this, they say, the bailout will be over. Ireland’s economic sovereignty will be restored.

Which leads me to a slightly traitorous question this morning. To wit: is that return of economic sovereignty entirely a good thing?

When the IMF responded to the bat signal from Ireland in 2010 the then-opposition made a big deal about the loss of Ireland’s economic sovereignty. The current Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources nearly self-combusted in fury on Prime Time during one debate at the thought of the loss of our economic sovereignty, in one of his many memorably television performances.

But what exactly is this thing, economic sovereignty? The London School of Economics, who ought to know, tells us that it’s the power of a government to make decisions independent of other governments.

And that’s great in theory. But in practice, “ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” as the seanfhocal has it – “people live in the shadow of each other.” And that’s as true for countries as it is for people. The only country I can think of that exists independently of every other country is North Korea and North Korea gives every impression of being hell on Earth.

One hundred years ago, it was possible for a country to exist on its own. Even seventy years ago, when Eamon DeValera made his famous St Patrick’s Day address to the nation, saying the Irish were a poor people, contented with things of the mind, isolationism was still, kind of, an option.

But not any more. The twenty-first century counts its minutes in a globalised world, where we’re all living in each other’s pockets. For the past number of years, the particular pocket the Irish have been in has been Frau Merkel’s, to the general distress of the populace. Everything would be fine, we’ve been telling ourselves, if it weren’t for the Germans. But now the Government is promising a restored economic sovereignty, and escape from the German pocket, everything is going to be grand.

But is it? And is being under the Germans’ wing all that bad?

By the Germans, we mean the EU, really. The Germans call all the shots in the EU. Everyone knows it, and that’s almost certainly the real reason the British dislike the EU so much.

Although not as bad as the British, the Irish have a strange relationship with the EU. The EU built modern Ireland in many ways, and yet we despise it as an institution. The EU won’t let us do this, and they won’t let us do that. There’s every sort of regulation, tying us up and denying us liberty.

Do you know what else the EU doesn’t let us do? Starve.

Ireland joined the Common Market / EEC in 1973, forty years ago. We’ll commemorate (after a fashion) the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in three years time, but there’s a case to be made that the EU has had a greater influence on the nation because it brought Ireland into the modern age. Money has flowed into Ireland for the past forty years from Brussels and in return we religiously shoot down every referendum, until the EU learns to ask us nicely.

A lot of this is the fault of the political culture of course, and another reason why the political culture is crying out for reform. For forty years the nation has been conditioned to just about tolerate the EU, like some doddery old relation whom we’ve been instructed to keep sweet in the hope of inheriting the land.

The Maastricht treaty was the treaty that set the ball rolling on the current drive for greater European Union, and was instrumental in the creation of the Euro. How was it presented at home? An eight billion pound jackpot for Ireland. Nothing else. Show me the money, and to hell with the big picture.

So the political culture is now reaping what it sowed in EU terms. Forty years of suspicion and distrust have their legacy. People talk about the EU not being democratic, as if that were a bad thing from our perspective. There are four million Irish and eighty million Germans. If the EU were truly democratic, do you think there would be Croke Park Agreements and Haddington Road Agreements and all the rest of them? There would be Reichstag Directives, and that would be that.

Ireland punches miles above its weight in the EU, yet we don’t realise it. We don’t realise just how well we’re doing. For eight hundred years Ireland was part of another multi-national organisation, on which the sun never set, and all we got for it were penal laws, a border and a long legacy of sectarianism.

During the Famine, the Irish were let starve, on the basis that the land was of greater economic use while grazing sheep than housing peasants. During the economic meltdown, the Germans sighed, sat down and wrote the Irish a cheque. That’s the difference.

And still people don’t realise it. Burn the bondholders!, they cry. Turn over the moneylenders’ tables in the Temple! And when asked who would then fill in the gigantic hole in the national coffers, we’re told we’ll be fine – someone always turns up.

Well, no. Someone doesn’t always turn up. Argentina defaulted on its debts ten years ago. When the Argentinean President, Christina Fernandez, went to visit the new pope, she had to fly the long way round, to avoid her airplane being impounded by one of Argentina’s many creditors. The fact Pope Francis is so concerned about the poor is because he has seen so many of them, and he has seen so many of them because Argentina’s governments have not been good.

We have been luckier. Ireland got into the EU in the nick of time and finally caught up with the modern world. When the modern world went to our heads, the EU came in to save us again. Get rid of the Germans? May they never go away.