…may echo in O’Connell Street
Across southern Europe, and especially in Greece and Spain, we’re hearing an inchoate cry of pain and rage from citizens whose lives have been shattered by austerity programmes. We’re seeing EU flags (and occasionally German flags) burned in the public squares.
These protesters offer no credible alternative programme. They merely seek the reinstatement of the good old days, the status quo ante, before bank failures and property bubbles and spending cuts and massive unemployment. They remember when most people had jobs, and the rest had generous benefits. When welfare provision was good. When state services were available. And when, in Greece at least, one could retire at 57 with a good pension, and when most citizens found ways to avoid paying their taxes.
They perhaps haven’t grasped that in a globalised world we cannot forever go on borrowing to sustain salaries and benefits much higher than in the rest of the world. So in a sense they are deluded and mistaken. Yet in another sense they have a point. They have grasped at some deeper level the idea that it all comes down to Brussels (and Berlin) — that the EU is the problem, not the solution.
The Greeks in particular are deeply conflicted on this point. They see it as a badge of pride and honour to be in the €uro, and in the EU, yet they reject the conditions of membership. I heard a Vox Pop interview today in which a Greek woman said “We’re in a community — we must support each other”, which being translated means “The Germans should bail us out. Again”.
Boris Johnson recently said, in his inimitable style: “I have a clear policy on cake. I’m pro having it. And I’m pro eating it”. Boris can get away with such a magnificent self-contradictory sound-bite, but it doesn’t work in Greece. Either they choose the €uro, and with it, grinding deflation and austerity and hunger and poverty, for decades or perhaps forever. Or else the get out, default, devalue, and in the medium-term start to recover, as their ouzo and their olive oil and their Aegean cruises are priced back into international markets.
Of course the anti-austerity mood in Europe is not just set by protesters on the streets. We’ve seen it at the ballot box as well, with the polls in France and Greece showing a strong anti-austerity bent, and even the EU institutions are now talking about “balancing austerity with pro-growth programmes”. Perhaps only Angela Merkel remains a true believer in fiscal probity alone.
This mood will be noticed in Ireland, and will surely encourage the NO vote in the up-coming referendum. The opinion polls at the moment are conflicted, and there are suggestions that most of the polls are associated with the Yes side.
As Irish voters face a barrage of YES propaganda from EU politicians, as they’re subjected to bribes and blandishments and brow-beating from Brussels, they will surely observe that the gut-feelings of the NO side are widely shared across Europe. Not just in the traditionally sceptical countries, but in the EU’s heartland. Yet again, the Irish are the only EU citizens who have an explicit vote on Merkel’s Fiscal Compact. They now know that if they defy the good and the great and the Brussels apparatchiks, they are in good company, and they speak for European citizens everywhere.