John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Referendum

POPULISM REACHES ITS LIMITS

Alexis Tsipras
Because of its Classical past as the founder of democracy, Greece was treated more tolerantly, than other countries would have been, when, during the nineteenth century, it defaulted several times on its commercial creditors.

That history created bad habits of mind. Now its creditors are the taxpayers of other countries, who are less tolerant, and less conscious of their intellectual debt to Plato and Socrates.

The present Greek debacle is the result of a clash of political cultures.

On the one hand is the culture of the European Union, where every decision has to be mediated through complex institutions representing 28 different countries, each with its own political culture, and then often has to win the assent of the European Parliament and of an independent European Central Bank. 

Theatrical gestures and moments of brilliant eloquence count for little in this world. Building a good track record, with good civil service staff work to back it up, is what counts in the EU political culture.

EU bailout decisions also have to be approved by the IMF, a global body, most of whose members and clients are far poorer than the Greeks. This creates an additional layer of interests which Greece must try to satisfy, as well as its EU partners.

In this setting, credibility and patience are vital to success. The new Greek government did not have patience, and soon it lost credibility as well.

In stark contrast with what was needed, it seems to me that the Greek Government is made up of people who come from a revolutionary tradition, where it believed that progress will come from a harsh rupture with the past, and whose proponents envisage a nationalist or socialist utopia, once that rupture is complete.

The Greek government are also people who have little or no previous experience of government, and who have thrived politically by agitating against the existing order, without the necessity of explaining how things would work after they had obtained power, and they had to survive and govern in the complex interconnected reality, that is the global economy of today.

That the Greek electorate would elect such people to office is explained by the desperation in to which they had been led by the irresponsible policies pursued by successive Greek governments since the 1980’s, who tried to win the votes of Greeks by promising them a standard of living that was not matched by their productive capacity, and by the mistaken decision to take Greece into the euro before the results of these bad policies had been properly rectified.

The problem is that the activities of the new government made things much worse than they were when they took office.

By creating doubt about whether they would honour the debts incurred by their predecessors, the new government created a crisis of confidence, and this loss of confidence led to a suspension of normal commercial activity. By looking for debt relief, before reforms were implemented they put the cart before the horse.

The underlying problem of Greece is a lack of productivity and export potential, but the Greek government, and to a great extent the EU authorities too, continue to ignore this. Greece’s productivity problem will take years to solve, not least because Greece is an elderly society. The structural reforms urged by the EU will help, because they will clear the clogged arteries of the Greek economy and allow talent to be reallocated to where it can do something productive. But the ageing of Greek society will remain an intractable problem.

As a result of the drama generated by their new Government, Greeks, instead of focussing on ways to invest to make more money, became in recent months obsessed instead with protecting what they already had. Whereas the economy was on a path towards modest growth, when the old government left office, it quickly plunged back into recession as money was withdrawn from the Greek banks, thereby further weakening Greece’s ability to meet its ongoing expenses, and to pay its debts as they fell due.

The timing of the Referendum, AFTER Greece has already run out of money, and on a proposal that has already been withdrawn, could not be worse. It compounds the panic and uncertainty. It is probably in breach of the Greek constitution. Apparently the Greek constitution does not allow referenda on fiscal issues, and the bailout offer contains many elements that are fiscal.

If ever there was a case study that shows how important it is to have political leaders who understand and face up to their responsibilities, and who deal with the world as it is rather than as they might wish it to be, it is to be found in Greece today. The lessons for Ireland are too obvious to require to be spelt out.

I wonder how Paul Krugman and others, who were so free with their advice to the Greeks in the early months of the crisis, are advising the Greeks to vote in the referendum on the 5 July.

Interview by Dermot Murnaghan for Sky News

ANY QUOTES USED MUST BE ATTRIBUTED TO MURNAGHAN, SKY NEWS
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now then, on Thursday the people of Ireland will be offered a choice to accept or reject stricter European plans for stricter budget disciplines. According to the latest polls the yes campaign is in the lead but opponents say the plans have no social or economic merit. Well joining me now from just outside Dublin is the former Prime Minister of Ireland, John Bruton, a very good morning to you Mr Bruton. Does Ireland feel the weight of European responsibility lying on its shoulders? If it should vote no, the implications for the euro could be dire.
JOHN BRUTON: Not really. In this case it will be enough for 12 of the 17 countries of the eurozone to vote yes to the Fiscal Compact for it to come in to effect so unless previous EU treaties, Ireland is not essential. On the other hand I think it is in Ireland’s interests to vote yes because that would give us the possibility of applying for funds from the European Civility Mechanism if we need them. It would also incorporate into our own domestic rules, better balanced budget controls on the government, to prevent governments – particularly in boom times – spending money that they ought not to spend and borrowing money that they ought not to borrow. The controls contained in this document are mainly to do with internal controls in Ireland rather than EU controls which exist anyway and they will I think be particularly applicable in boom times rather than in times of difficulty when you have to cut back anyway because you can’t borrow the money.
DM: The poll I referred to also tells us something interesting about Irish political life in that it seems on this issue to be dividing more than it has done in the past along class lines in that those more tending to vote no are those suffering most from austerity and recession, those at the bottom of the economic pile.
JB: I think that’s true, the polls seem to suggest that that is the case although in the last week, I think among people of the less well-off socio-economic group there has been an increase in the yes support in that camp because I think they realise that if we have to go for a second bail out, that would be a lot of it to support social welfare and healthcare schemes that benefit the less well-off people more than they benefit other people and obviously if we were cut off from funds, the people who would be first to suffer would be the least well-off. I think that message is beginning to percolate right across the community at this point.
DM: Does that tell us that those people minded, and I see on third of the electorate is still undecided, those people minded to vote no are stick of this tag that has been hung round Ireland’s neck of the poster boy for austerity, they may be beginning to feel that the Greeks are right and say let’s not take it any more, it doesn’t have to be this way?
JB: Well I think the truth of the matter is Ireland is doing well not because of austerity but in spite of austerity. We are doing well because we have a very big foreign direct investment base in this country, we are the leading attractor of foreign investment in the world, certainly in Europe, and that’s keeping our economy healthy. I think that that is something that depends very much on us being part of the European project, people invest here from America, from China, from other countries like that, because we are a fully subscribed member of the European Union. If we were to cast in doubt our commitment to the disciplines of the European Union and the euro, that would have an adverse effect on foreign direct investment which would have an immediate adverse effect on interest rates and on job creation here in this country
DM: Well leaving aside the referendum there, if Greece should exit the euro or be forced out of the euro, it’s said that this could spark a domino effect. Do you think that Ireland could be ejected from the euro or is it irrevocable, its membership?
JB: Well, legally it is not possible to eject a country from the euro. A country might decide that it had to leave but I don’t think it’s likely that Greece will leave in the end because the effects on Greece would be so enormous, there would be an immediate four percentage point drop in the Greek gross domestic product, on top of all the drops that have occurred already, in the immediate effect of their leaving. If that were to lead to a break-up of the eurozone, you could have up to a twelve percent drop in income right across the eurozone, with the biggest sufferers actually not even being Greece but being Germany and France and, of course, Ireland. So I think keeping the eurozone together is a very, very high priority but clearly you have got to do that on a basis that you’re not simply giving money that is being poured down a black hole which never will come up again, you’ve got to have some controls or guarantees both in European law and in domestic law and what the fiscal compact treaty does is insist that we put it into our domestic law as well as relying on European controls which are there already under existing treaties.
DM: Just briefly, do you have any sympathy with people, maybe just to cause mischief, who have been saying in Ireland maybe you would have been better staying linked to sterling as you were forty years or so ago?
JB: Well at that time we had a situation where interest rate policy was determined in London without any Irish input and we went up and down with the fortunes of whatever suited the British economy as decided by people in Britain over which we had no say. In the eurozone we are one of 17 countries therefore we don’t determine the policy but we do have a say, we have representation in the European Central Bank, representation in the European Commission, in the European Parliament so we have more control, not complete control but more control of our economic future as a member of the eurozone than we would have if we were simply to unilaterally link ourselves to sterling and accept whatever was decided in London.
DM: Okay, Mr Bruton, thank you very much indeed for your time. John Bruton there with his thoughts on the referendum.

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