Left DebateOpinion

Ireland & the EU: The EU is a Neoliberal straightjacket

… says Patricia McKenna

The EU is a centralised, undemocratic political entity that enforces right-wing economic policies on all its member states, regardless of whether or not the democratically elected governments in those member states are on the left or right. It is also a well-advanced armed military structure with a fortress mentality that strives to keep out the so-called non-desirables (refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants) unless there is some self-serving economic advantages for the EU to allow them enter.

From a left-wing perspective it would seem that the question of whether or not the ‘left’ in Ireland should advocate exiting the EU is a no-brainer. How can any party, claiming to be on the left of the political spectrum, support a structure that not only undermines and erodes national democratic systems but also enshrines, via the EU treaties, economic policies that tie the hands of democratically elected politicians across the EU, particularly in the Eurozone area?

Unfortunately, to date, left-wing EU criticism has had a tendency to be short lived. Experience has demonstrated that the first casualty of electoral success of an EU-critical left-wing party will be that party’s position on the EU. We need look no further than the recent Syriza victory in Greece as proof of this assertion. Although Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, had promised earlier this year to end bailouts and austerity, his victory speech after the September election has virtually let the country’s creditors off the hook.

Tsipras did not, as many would have expected, focus on the Eurozone or bailouts but instead focused on what he called the old corrupt ways of the Greek political system. Notwithstanding the fact that the old system deserved criticism, his words will be music to the ears of Eurozone capitals because Tsipras has now proclaimed Syriza’s mandate to implement the painful reforms that come with the third bailout that is designed to save the euro.

This Greek drama has a familiar ring to it as we think back to the Irish situation. Greece has now joined the ranks of the ‘blame the crisis on anything except the EU or euro’ brigade of which Ireland is a founding member. The financial and economic crisis in Ireland should never have been understood by simply looking at the actions of the State, financial capital, and developers during the Celtic Tiger boom as if these were just undesirable symptoms and not the root cause.

What is the point of voting to change the government if you can’t change the policies?

One of the key causes of the Irish crisis, which has been virtually ignored to date, is the fact that Ireland belongs to the Eurozone. The Eurozone’s ‘one size fits all’ interest rates, unsuitable for Ireland, created the huge asset bubble. This, coupled with financial integration removing currency risk, facilitated massive cash flows into Ireland, creating a huge and ignored credit risk.

Without a national currency, defaulting on the debt was our only real option when the bubble burst in 2008. However, pressure from the Eurozone’s main actors – the principal creditors – denied us this option as our weak-willed politicians caved in. Survival of the euro has become the ultimate political goal for which the ordinary people in Ireland, Greece and elsewhere must bear the unacceptable cost.

The EU is not and never has been a democratic system. Laws are proposed by the unelected and unaccountable Commission and then passed by a system that denies voters any effective accountability. This undemocratic system is even more profound for the members of the Eurozone, because governments can’t even decide budgetary policy – all budgets must be approved by the unaccountable and unelected bodies of the EU.

The bottom line is that there is little point urging voters to vote for a ‘left-wing’ government when the EU Treaties, which in Ireland have constitutional status, enshrine neo-liberal capitalist economics into all aspects of policy formulation. What is the point of voting to change the government if you can’t change the policies?

The late Tony Benn pointed out many years ago: “When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious what they had in mind was not democratic. In Britain, you vote for a government so the government has to listen to you, and if you don’t like it you can change it.”

Benn was also a strong advocate for leaving the EU and said: “My view of the EU has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners but I am in favour of democracy. I think they are building an empire and want us to be part of that empire, and I don’t want that.”

It looks like the United Kingdom will be voting on EU membership in the coming months. The left should take a principled stand on this and recognise that it’s time to stand up to the elephant in the room regardless who else may be opposing that elephant or what motivates their opposition. If Britain votes to leave the EU then Ireland will have to look at all options open to it. Exiting the EU does not mean isolation. Co-operation with EU member states and those outside of the EU is still possible, as Norway and Iceland have both effectively demonstrated.

Patricia McKenna is a former Green Party MEP for Dublin

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