Pro-referendum forces maintain momentum in Ireland

For me, one of the key questions about the recent French and Greek elections has been how those results would play in Ireland — would a firm anti-austerity wave across the continent make Irish voters more or less likely, in the upcoming May 31 referendum, to endorse the December fiscal compact agreed among all of the European Union members (except the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic)?

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the increasingly cynical response of Irish voters in these EU treaty referenda, the “Yes” vote camp still seems to be maintaining (or even strengthening) its lead over the “No” vote.  The latest poll shows 53% in favor of the treaty (an increase of 6% over the prior poll), with only 31% opposed.

The momentum comes even as German chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself increasingly on the defense against an emergent pro-growth (and anti-austerity) wing from both the periphery — e.g. Greece — and the heart — e.g. France, North Rhine-Westphalia — of the EU.

Say what you will about the current Eurocrisis, it is fascinating to watch the increasingly interlinked politics among the EU member states.  For the first time in EU history, notwithstanding decades of (politically meaningless?) European parliamentary elections, a bona fide European politics has emerged in the austerity/growth debate.  It transcends the traditional right/left axis of national politics and the very existential debate of federalism vs. intergovernmentalism.

Yesterday, Irish finance minister Michael Noonan argued that supporting the fiscal compact would send a message to the EU that Ireland is serious:

Mr Noonan said adopting the treaty will send a signal out to Europe that the Irish are serious, committed people, and committed to the repair job required for the economy.

If we vote No, he said, Europe will move on and we will be left with less than full membership of the eurozone.

To laughter from the audience at an economic summit organised by Bloomberg in Dublin this morning, Mr Noonan said he does not want Ireland to be a pavilion member of the eurozone “where you are allowed drink in the bar, but not play the course”.

I think it’s a fairly sophisticated “pro-referendum” argument, at least compared to the arguments that failed to prevent the Irish from rejecting both the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.  Both of the governing Fine Gael and Labour parties, as well as opposition Fianna Fáil support the treaty; Sinn Féin stands virtually alone as the only major Irish party opposing it.

Noonan’s argument — he also brags that no country but Ireland would be able to pass a referendum on the treaty — plays to the perceived sophistication of the Irish, who have weathered a fair bit of austerity themselves already in the past three years, and who have done so without torching buildings or turning to the extreme left or extreme right.  That’s not a value judgment about Greece — or France or Spain or Italy — but it’s beyond dispute that the response of Irish civil society to massive budget cuts has been much more orderly than some other members in the periphery of the European Union.

In any event, the “let’s show Europe that Ireland, unlike Greece, is full of adults” argument is probably a much better one than the blackmail option: “if you don’t support this treaty, Ireland will lose its bailout and be forced to default.” The latter argument invites the danger of turning the referendum into a vote on national sovereignty, about which the Irish — after its long struggle for independence from Great Britain and with its tradition of military neutrality — are understandably prickly.

The fiscal compact — which would still proceed even without Ireland’s approval (although perhaps significantly weakened) — would require EU countries to maintain a structural deficit of less than 0.5% of nominal GDP annually.

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