The ghosts of Ireland’s past
European Councils come round more frequently nowadays. Next week’s meeting of leaders from the 27 member states will be their seventh such gathering since Herman Van Rompuy, the chairman of the club, convened a special meeting on 11 February 2010, at the Bibliothèque Solvay, with the bright idea of discussing the prospects for economic growth. The meeting, if you can remember back that far, was hijacked by the need to make reassuring noises about Greece’s sovereign debt – which set something of a trend for almost every meeting of the European Council since, though the vultures later moved on from Greece to Ireland and now hover over Portugal.
When the government leaders line up for what the authorities still laughingly refer to as “the family photograph” (any family with such gender imbalance would be doomed to extinction), I speculate as to which of them is making a last appearance at a European Council. The greater frequency of the European Councils makes the question more complicated – more difficult to answer in some cases, easier in others.
Yves Leterme, the prime minister of Belgium, has been on notice ever since a general election last June, but he has attended four European Councils since and it would be a brave bookmaker who offered generous odds against him appearing again in March. Silvio Berlusconi is another leader who has defied the doomsayers to reappear at European Councils long after his political obituary has been published. On the eve of the last European Council, he saw off a no-confidence vote in the Italian parliament that many expected him to lose. True, he now faces criminal charges from his old foes, Milan’s public prosecutors, this time for paying an under-age dancer, but there is no sign yet that the disapproval of the Pope will stop him from turning up at next week’s European Council.
The contrast between Berlusconi and Brian Cowen, Ireland’s prime minister, could hardly be greater. Cowen might just make it to Brussels next week, but he will not be prime minister by the time of the Spring European Council on 24-25 March. He is by now a political zombie. His announcement at the weekend that he was resigning the leadership of Fianna Fáil, his party, was an admission of what had become clear during the preceding week: he no longer commands the loyalty of his party, let alone of the voters. For the moment, Cowen is the scapegoat for the sins of the Irish economy. At the election, which will be within the month, it will be not just Cowen but the whole Fianna Fáil party that is punished.
Cowen bears significant responsibility for the mess. He is prime minister in a government that has presided over a collapse in the Irish economy, accompanied by home repossessions, factory closures, and even the resumption of emigration. Some of that was down to Ireland’s exposure to the global economy, but Cowen’s government agreed to underwrite the country’s banks without knowing the true extent of their problems, and it scored plenty of own-goals, such as the botched handling of a food-safety scare. By the time that the Irish government was faced with the indignity of having to negotiate loans from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and its eurozone partners, few among the electorate had any lingering confidence in the likes of Cowen and Brian Lenihan, the finance minister.
It was Cowen’s personal misfortune that he took over as prime minister from Bertie Ahern in May 2008: his administration has known only hard economic times, capped by a eurozone debt crisis. But to a large extent he contributed to what he inherited: he was finance minister from 2004 to 2008 and was the author of some notoriously over-generous budgets that stoked the spending bubble, fed inflation and did nothing to address the accumulated debt problems. Hindsight, which is never terribly forgiving, must judge Cowen’s budgets very harshly.
Yet, expansionary budgets did not start with Cowen. Intermittently during the past year, while the sovereign-debt saga has stumbled from crisis meeting to crisis meeting, there has flashed into my mind’s eye a memory of Charlie McCreevy at the European Parliament in 2001. This was before McCreevy became European commissioner for the single market and services – where his laissez-faire ideology was brutally exposed by the credit crunch and the collapse of vast sections of European banking. In those days, he was Ireland’s finance minister (Cowen’s immediate predecessor) and he came to Brussels to tell the economic and monetary affairs committee of the Parliament why he was going to ignore the strictures of the Commission, which had issued Ireland with a warning about the state of its public finances.
McCreevy was in ebullient mood (which was his normal state at that point in the economic cycle). Politely declining the Commission’s recommendation was not an option for him: he defiantly threw it back in the faces of Pedro Solbes, the then commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, Klaus Regling, the then director-general, and their staff. Eventually, despite McCreevy’s protests, his fellow finance ministers issued a formal warning – to no effect. The whole experience exposed what then passed for eurozone governance as a sham.
When the ghost of Brian Cowen passes through Brussels at next week’s European Council, the question that should be asked is whether the EU has laid the ghost of Charlie McCreevy.
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