Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “EU”

Scotland – Why #Indyref won’t go away

After a few difficult weeks Scotland has decided to stay together with England. Let’s hope for their sake it all works out. One cannot help but give a rueful shake of the head like we are watching a friend returning to a partner who has sworn that they ‘have changed’. Maybe they have.

Jason O’Mahony made the point this morning that ‘stability’ is always a huge force in any vote. Voters don’t really like risk all that much. Given the choice many will always opt to keep the status quo for fear that things can always get worse. I think Stability played a large part in the #indyref.

The problem for England now is that it has to live up to its promises. Leading figures have been love bombing Scotland for over a year. What happens now? Do they just stop? Is this the end of all the litany of people talking about how valuable Scotland is to them and how much it means to the UK? Like any relationship the big danger now is that once Scotland has safely moved back in, life returns to normal and people move on. This will leave Scotland feeling a little ignored and perhaps taken for granted now that a sword of Damocles no longer hangs over the UK.

Promises are always hard to keep. At least any promise that are worth making. England must now deliver and must do so against a backdrop of significant support for Scottish Independence. The Yes vote will be feeling bruised, but will eventually realise this was no more than a battle and the war is far from over. At the first sign of England delaying a promise they will be reminding everyone of what was said. It surely cannot be long before many cars wear a sticker saying ‘Don’t blame me I voted YES’. That’s what the future holds. The problem for England now is that the more it devolves power and honours its commitments the more accustomed Scotland may grow to the idea of standing on its own two feet.

I have a young son and one day made the mistake of telling him if he didn’t get ready for school immediately we were not going to a show we had tickets for. I told him it was his choice. Now either he didn’t appreciate the seriousness of it or he wisely gambled that I was over playing my threats. Either way he made me sweat on his decision. Having left it to him I was snookered. Eventually he went to school but I learned that the risk was too great to ever let him have that choice again or everything could get ruined. It will be a long time before any British government will be willing to let the Scots vote on independence again. The challenge for the ‘Yes’ side is to build that support until it becomes impossible for the Government to hold out in the face of overwhelming polls, but they will have to be overwhelming.

In the end there is a problem at the heart of the argument for England and Westminster. If the European Union were to be inspired by the Scottish No vote and announce that it was to remodel itself as a ‘community of nations’ in the style of the UK, who would be the first country to walk out? Yes, the UK. You see, English people would be horrified at the thought of an EU that contained one central government and that their main politicians went there and were subsumed in large European parties. The Idea that Westminster would become a devolved power with fewer rights than the EU government would shock them. The thought of a British Prime Minister not being the supreme authority on matters of state would be utterly unacceptable.

Most of the problems the EU has are derived from efforts to make a federal state that nobody wants. Despite all its flaws and current interference as perceived by some the EU still falls well short of a centralised state dictating all policy. The more it tries to move in that direction the more opposition it finds.

So we know that the EU cannot ever become a UK. The UK would not accept that. This begs the question of why? Why is it wrong for England to have a devolved parliament? Why is it wrong for England to have policy dictated elsewhere? And why is it ok and better for Scotland? There will be no moving of parliament to Edinburgh or Glasgow for a few months of the year. Scotland is merely a province no matter how it’s viewed. But you see that’s OK for Scotland, England is looking out for them, helping them, minding them, good old England. It would never do for England though.


Anglo Tapes – Ireland, Banks, Politics, Has anything really changed?

The summer break can’t come quick enough for many politicians. It has been another long year. No doubt some will point to progress but the public are unlikely to be too convinced. When Brian Lenihan set out his four year plan many people were fuming and quite understandably so. The Lenihan plan set out four years of hardship and sacrifice and even at the end of that 4 years we were only to be looking at things stabilising. As it turns out that’s exactly the picture that’s emerging.

Now, that is not necessarily praiseworthy. The Irish people have suffered immensely for years now and the EU has been paralysed in acting. The EU that does hold the answers and can fix the problem whenever it gets around to sorting out its own petty differences and growing up enough to actually face the problem. In the meantime hapless governments in bailed out states are just trying to bob along like victims of a sunken ship desperately scanning the horizon for a rescue boat.

The Anglo Tapes will increase the fury of even the most level headed citizen. The attitude displayed on the tapes is appalling. While you and I and so many families, fall behind in our mortgages, struggle to pay the food bill and continue to sacrifice we are reminded, by these tapes, that some guys thought it would be ok to fool the state and have them pick up the tab. We are paying the price for a society that at its top level believed lying was ok, that it’s normal and that sharp practice is a victimless crime so long as the victim is only an ordinary punter. We are paying the price for a system that lauded such disregard of people. Perhaps we should not be surprised. A casual glance at TV programmes like the Apprentice seemed to show us that an attitude of being an obnoxious asshole was a pre-requisite to work in business.

We are paying the price for a regulatory system that was run on the cheap and believed that the people who know best about a business are those who run it. Don’t interfere. We are paying the price for a culture where the ‘providing of jobs’ was paramount and an excuse to allow a business free rein to do as it pleased, to breach rules or avoid paying simply because …well…think of the jobs.

Finally, we are paying the price for a political system that lacked courage or conviction. A system that accepted any information it was fed, that failed to question for years before the crisis. Politicians and government ministers stood in awe of the great captains of industry. A fool’s trust was exercised on golf courses and dinner functions where if someone says it’s ok then it must be ok. As David McWilliams continually points out we were suffering from extreme groupthink and nobody wanted to appear the fool in front of the group.

The problem is that I am not so sure that much has changed. The EU seems no closer to facing its issues, in fact the EU still seems to carry a candle of hope that the problems will go away themselves if the US and China sort it out and the bailed out states can eventually grow in their own time. The EU still does not want to lead and still procrastinates on any action while an option exists to stay put. The suffering of ordinary people does not matter, that is but a fleeting page in a history book that will instead focus on legacies and long term plans.
What about our banks? Have they learned? Definitely not. Their approach to their business remains the same as ever. Humility or regret is not part of their make up. The salaries at the top just prove that all believe that the world can and should continue as normal for them. This week thousands of mortgage holders are in distress. The banks have failed utterly and completely to engage, their plans for dealing with mortgage debt are hopelessly inadequate and the offer little or no real solutions that would allow the borrower to pay off arrears and get back on their feet. They are swamped in paperwork and hike up the interest and charges on the borrower while taking months to come to basic decisions on interest only payments etc which are in themselves pretty ineffective. Why is this? It’s because the banks want stronger rules on repossession and they are getting their way. That’s because it might take work to meet and discuss with mortgage holders and arrive at a solution. They don’t want that, they want a form filled in and put into a computer and rejected then move on. Mortgage holders are ordinary people, the banks are professionals, therefore when it comes to government policy, the banks get their way. Nothing has changed.

What about politics? Well I doubt anyone is shocked to find it’s the same old story. Fianna Fail took a hammering and we were told it was a sea change. It was a sea change for us political nerds. It was a sea change in terms of names of political movements. That was all. Brian Lenihan famously said ‘We all partied’, the quote, often taken out of context, was referring to all political parties whom he was accusing of making rash promises about the economy in order to get votes and he claimed all were guilty. All parties were. Fianna Fail were the ones at the wheel though and they must take the blame, they cannot look at the opposition or others and say ‘you made me do it’, they lacked courage to question, the lacked conviction and they were not brave enough to accept losing in order to do the right thing.

The current government must now accept its share of blame. It cannot continue saying ‘FF made us do it’. This government has also lacked conviction and belief, we know that there may not be much scope in terms of many policies, voters even accept that, but what has shocked them is the fact that the personality of the government is no different. In fact at times it has been even more arrogant, tied closer to business interests and displayed the same awe of those at the top as any of its predecessors. If politicians cannot look at the last government and see where that led what hope is there for us? Surely it’s now evident that long term governments are not naturally correct? That staying in power is not always the brave thing to do? That voting against what you believe does not automatically mean you are putting the country first?

According to the polls Labour will suffer most. It’s hardly surprising. What is surprising is that this party which showed such strength and conviction in opposition, being the only ones to vote against the bank guarantee, is now a party utterly lacking in belief or direction. No doubt some supporters will point to me of several things they are trying to achieve, the latest of which will be the ‘X’ legislation. I am unconvinced that the hard pressed voter will feel a labour capitulation on economic matters was worth it for ‘X’ legislation, but perhaps I’m wrong. It seems however that courage has deserted their ranks and instead they will await a good opportunity to change. No new leader will emerge to rock the boat until awkward elections are out of the way or difficult budgets are made. A strategy that’s nothing to do with what you actually think, nothing to do with bravery and nothing to do with the people, but everything to do with supposedly being politically smart. They should ring Bertie he might tell them where that leads.

EU needs to wake up to reality

The EU finds itself in the middle of another fine mess this weekend. The argument is undoubtedly financial but the problem is very much political. The situation in Cyprus is being watched closely elsewhere and that is the last thing the EU wanted. This was a quick smash and grab effort. Cyprus is a very tiny economy, it is in a very unique position and major powers wanted to deal with it and move along quickly. Let’s cut through the spin and the rhetoric, the EU has ceased to be a union of equal partners. It is now a league with several different divisions. The treatment you get is based upon what league you are in.

If France needed a bailout tomorrow it would be treated far better than Ireland or Portugal, and the EU wisely did not even contemplate attempting in Ireland or Portugal what it has done in Cyprus. This was a political decision, one where they believed they could contain the hit simply because Cyprus does not have any form of economy that can be cut or taxed to raise the money it needs. It seemed simple, take the money from savings as it’s the only way it will probably ever be repaid and it deals with it quickly. That was the theory. It’s proved a lot more complex.

There can be little doubt that this is a game of poker now. Cyprus has decided to play hardball and the Germans do not believe in being a charity. While Russia lurks in the background the Germans are quite confident that the Cypriots will find that Russia wants its money back just as much as anyone else and there will be a high price to pay for any loan. Germany has a decision to make, it can accept a hit financially on Cyprus and then open the door for hits from all other countries or it can cut Cyprus loose, and use any misfortune the country suffers after that, as a lesson to others.

All of this has one glaring problem. The EU simply does not work anymore. It is financially broken. Economically it is holed below the water line and the current policy is to get all hands on deck to scoop the water out and keep the ship afloat. At some point however we all know that if the ship is to survive someone is going to have to fix the hole. Unless something is done to boost economic activity in the EU then a slow sinking is inevitable. An intergovernmental conference and a new treaty are on the way if the EU is to have any future. Britain has already started this process with its efforts to hold a referendum on membership based on a renegotiation of its position in the EU. The first problem is of course that the EU needs to decide what it is to become, a Union of equal partner nations, controlled and managed by democratic governments working together, or a Federal state controlled by centralised systems and some directly elected representatives.

Decisive and real action is needed to address the issue with Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal. These countries need to be put on a footing where they can start to contribute again rather than adding to the drag. Everybody knows this. Deep down the EU knows this. At the heart of the German government they know it too. The problem is that to solve the situation is going to mean a financial hit. Things can’t move again unless there is some sort of new start. Germany needs the EU, it needs the Euro and it relies on this. However it is Germany that will take the financial hit in order to give the new start. Politically that’s a problem. In Ireland as in other countries we are used to hearing that the man in the street says ‘I didn’t create this mess, it’s not my fault and I should not have to pay for it’. That argument is no different in Germany. As far as the man in the street is concerned, they run a tight ship, have a strong economy and they see no reason why they should have to face any kind of financial hit just to help other countries. Arguments about why Germany benefits from the Euro, from the EU or from trade are lost on the electorate. This is at the heart of the political problem. No matter how obvious the answers are to those dealing with the issue they know they cannot take these decisions and win elections.

It’s a funny old world. Angela Merkel was very fond of telling political leaders in Greece and in Ireland about how they needed to put their country before their party. So successful was the mantra that Irish politicians could not wait to sign their own political death warrants in order to ‘save’ their country even when the deal on offer was questionable. Politicians became so convinced that the unpopular thing must be the right thing that they had to act before anyone else got a say. Now there may be merit in that, but only if everyone is playing by the same rules. Angela Merkel has shown time and time again that her party comes before, not only her country, but the entire EU. She will not accept an electoral meltdown in order to ‘do the right thing’. Europe is therefore left on hiatus because of political cowardice. People are suffering because at a political level we are playing chess and delaying inevitable decisions.

We are not innocent in this regard. Unlike the EU of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there are no partnerships or efforts to form negotiation blocs. Everybody is simply vying to be close to Germany. The idea of countries coming together to start a process where a real solution can be tabled scares the life out of the politicians because it could put Germany off side. So we keep waiting for some kind of Armageddon that may force Germany’s hand without us having to say anything. Its not that the Germans are the bad guys here, it’s simply that they have convinced everyone else how to put their own selfish interests aside while at the same time are unwilling to face that point themselves. If Germany wants the EU and the Euro, then there will be a price to pay for getting it. For the rest of the EU it’s time to start asking where the power lies and where the hell we are actually going.

Fiscal Compact Treaty debate far from enlightening

Today in the Irish Independent Online I take a look at the debate of the referendum on RTE’s ‘Frontline’ programme. Sad to say but for me the debate was very much a disappointment……….

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