Mises Daily Articles
The Death of the Celtic Tiger
On Friday the second of October, 752,451 Irish citizens ratified the Treaty of Lisbon for 500 million European citizens. The Treaty of Lisbon is the latest pact in the seemingly unstoppable march of further centralization of power amongst the 27 member states of the European Union.
The Treaty of Lisbon is an outgrowth of a failed document called the EU Constitution, which essentially attempted to transform the European Union into a legal state. However, this constitution was defeated in referendums held by both the French and the Dutch electorates in 2005.
It was realized in Brussels that the constitution needed to be repackaged to avoid further referendums as there was a clear popular dislike of increased centralization. Thus, Brussels removed requirements for an EU flag and national anthem from the constitution and then, magically, the "constitution" was now a "treaty," requiring only national parliaments to sign it so those pesky referendums could be avoided. That is, except for in the Republic of Ireland.
The Irish Constitution (1937) was one of the few constitutions that was not completely overrun and delegitimized through the years. In Crotty v. An Taoiseach (1987), the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland established that significant changes to European Union treaties required an amendment to the Irish constitution (always done by means of a referendum) before they could be ratified by the state.
Ireland had benefited greatly from EU membership. Massive EU investment in roads and infrastructure, and in lavish farming subsidies had made the European Union the sacred cow of Irish politics. To criticize the EU was to blaspheme. Thus, when it was left to Ireland to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, I think few in Brussels were worried.
Aside from small socialist groups representing about 5 percent of the electorate, and a handful of independent journalists and academics, the entire political establishment and its associated media outlets harangued the Irish electorate to vote Yes.
The establishment were so confident of a victory that both Brian Cowan, the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and Charlie McCreevy, the Irish EU Commissioner, declared openly that they had not even read the Treaty they were asking us to vote on! McCreevy was even truthful enough to say that he did not expect "ordinary, decent Irish people" to bother reading the 271 page Treaty either!
A sea of propaganda flooded the country. The establishment repeated ad nauseam a guilt trip about how much hard-earned money the European Union had redistributed our way to pay for our roads (and support our bloated government). In the media, a No vote was considered not only unthinkable, but treacherous.
Against all the odds, on June 12, 2008, the Irish people voted No to the Treaty of Lisbon. It was an amazing moment of David vs. Goliath.
There were many reasons people voted No. Some had concerns that Ireland would lose its ability to maintain its low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent, which attracted many multinationals, such as Dell and Intel. Others worried that the EU would use "Equality Legislation" to legalize abortion on demand. Disgruntled fishermen voted No because many had been made redundant through EU legislation forbidding them from fishing in the seas their families had fished for generations. Others voted No because of fears of further militarization of the EU and the initiation of a standing army.
The Socialist Party was convinced the European Union would pass neoliberal legislation that would privatize hospitals and schools and undermine the cherished minimum wage of nearly €9 per hour. Some businessmen voted No to protest the tidal wave of laws and regulations pouring out of Brussels, which regulate everything from what type of light bulb you are allowed to use to how many breaks bus drivers must take per shift.
Many people voted No because the Treaty of Lisbon was so outrageously long and complicated a document that nobody could understand what they were voting on. In fact, Belgium's newly appointed EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht said, "Whilst the original Constitutional Treaty was technical, and correct, people didn't read the Lisbon Treaty, they didn't understand the first word about it.… This was a deliberate decision of the European Council."
In 2008, at the time of this vote, Ireland was slowly awakening from the hangover of an extravagant boom.
For over 15 years Ireland had known nothing but success: it was called the Celtic Tiger. Irish standards of living had exploded upwards, and nearly 150 years of net emigration (since the Irish Famine) had finally been put to an end. For the first time in Irish history, people had actually wanted to immigrate to Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of Poles and other Eastern Europeans came in search of a better life.
Ireland entered the European Monetary Union in 1999 as part of the 1992 Mastricht Treaty. Thus, Ireland dumped the Irish pound (punt) and adopted the euro. Powers to set Ireland's interest rates accrued to the European Central Bank (ECB). As such, from 2003 to 2005, when boom-time Ireland was starved for cash, and interest rates in a free market would have been through the roof, the ECB held rates steady at 2 percent, pouring a tanker of gasoline onto the fire.
Combined with a new culture that disparaged saving, and a social order that held the "stock gambler" and "house flipper" as role models, and the steady wage earner as a fool, a boom emerged in capital goods, housing and stocks. In 2006, this madness was emphasized by the Taoiseach, then Bertie Ahern, when he said, "The boom times are getting even boomer!" At one stage it was claimed that there were over 30,000 millionaires in Ireland, in a country consisting of just over 4 million people.
But all was not so rosy. A significant amount of this wealth was not real at all and the many cracks began to show in mid-2008. Artificially low interest rates had completely distorted the structure of production. Some bank shares, such as Anglo Irish Bank, which had become known as a "builder's bank," for funding so much of the construction boom, decreased in value by 99 percent in a matter of months. Some houses lost over half their value within a year.
Entering the crisis, the Irish government had a relatively low level of public debt at only 25 percent of GDP in 2007. By September 2008, with a series of banks collapsing, the government moved to issue a state guarantee on the deposits, loans and obligations of the six Irish banks — a total sum of some €400 billion, more than twice the country's GDP. Oh, the moral hazard!
This was all in vain, however, because Anglo began to collapse again, prompting government intervention on a truly Soviet scale. The government nationalized Anglo Irish Bank. Subsequently, a multibillion-euro bailout for the too-big-to-fail brigade transpired to "recapitalize" other large (and fraudulent, and insolvent) Irish banks.
To make matters worse, a glut of 70,000 unsold houses were then coming on stream. The downward pressure on house prices began to be felt. Of course, poor people being able to buy property they never dreamed of acquiring is a terrible thing to our political overlords. Obviously, it would negatively impact the balance sheet of the newly acquired state bank.
The government's current reaction is a proposal to essentially buy all the unsold land from the property developers at far above the market value, keep this property off the market to maintain prices artificially high, and slowly release it over 10 or 20 years until the property market recovers. If this passes, the Irish government shall, in fact, have the largest property portfolio in the world.
When the Treaty of Lisbon was first defeated in June 2008, the extent and depth of the crisis had not yet been revealed, and popular opinion believed that it was only a temporary blip. However, since the Irish people gave the wrong answer they were asked to vote on the treaty again. By October the following year, the Irish people were fighting for their very survival. It was an easy win for the establishment.
From the moment the treaty was defeated in 2008, the wheels of propaganda devoted their time to discrediting its opponents. Although there was a majority No vote, people who voted No were openly demonized as religious fanatics, Communists, and CIA operatives whose desire was to "keep Europe weak." The source of their funds was under constant suspicion. The Finance Minister said that the Irish constitutional right to a referendum was a "negative and potentially embarrassing process."
Meanwhile, many of the No voters' concerns were substantiated by reports from the European Union itself. EU Taxation Commissioner Laszlo Kovacs stated openly that after the first No vote, he had to shelve plans to "harmonize" the corporate tax base in all EU countries until after the second attempt at the treaty was ratified. The Irish EU Commissioner even agreed that "the deliberately unworkable proposals [for a common, consolidated tax base] amounted to a Trojan horse to enable the Commission to take control of taxation."
Furthermore, the EU Security Institute released a report calling for a 360,000-strong EU military force, sufficient to ensure that at any given moment 120,000 soldiers are ready for deployment. The force is to be deployable before any need for a political OK. This, it says, is in order to "minimize delays." Furthermore, a Swedish MP declared her intention to use the Lisbon Treaty to enshrine abortion as a "human right" across the EU — potentially forcing Ireland, as well as Malta and Poland, to abolish their protections for the unborn.
Nonetheless, Ireland has been a swamp of anger and fear in recent times: anger at the open corruption and hubris of our political class; and fear that if we do not vote Yes, our economy will never recover. After years of nearly complete employment, with jobless figures hovering around 3.5 percent during the boom, there has been an explosion in unemployment to nearly 12 percent, as I write, with it expected to enter the 20-percent region despite nearly 100,000 Poles returning home.
The Irish people were crying out for a savior when they voted Yes last Friday. The middle class voted Yes in droves, being the good civics students they were taught to be in school. They feared annoying the Eurocrats in case the ECB might stop buying our government debt. For as Patrick Henry said, "Fear is the passion of slaves."
Even in the peak of the boom in 2006, public servants were paid on average 25 percent more than their private sector counterparts. That difference has been compounded on a monthly basis for over a year. Of course, the civil service takes its lead from the top, where the Taoiseach earns more than even the president of the United States! Now the government is borrowing over €400 million a week, mainly to maintain its payroll and welfare benefits.
An endless litany of corruption scandals and tribunals linking swaths of the political class and its public bodies has dominated the Irish landscape for years. Sadly, a common attitude amongst voters has been that they want to take the power away from the Irish politicians and give it to the selfless European politicians instead.
In the month preceding the referendum, taxpayers' money was spent plastering every road in Ireland with such posters as "Vote Yes For Recovery" and "Vote Yes For Jobs." Unfortunately, the desperate Irish middle class, being crushed with an anvil of debt they had accumulated during ten years of "permanent prosperity," were willing to buy the promise of a return to the good times no matter what the cost. But Benjamin Franklin was right when he said that those who will give up liberty for security shall lose both and deserve neither.
I feel sorry for the many Irish who are fully aware of the dangers entailed in EU expansion. They are now trapped. Many sacrificed two years of their lives and much personal wealth to hold back the tsunami of propaganda coming from the establishment media and its court historians.
In earnest, the Monday after the referendum result, the Minister for Finance began denying that the treaty had anything to do with jobs or recovery. And slowly, one by one, the Orwellian lies told to sell the treaty to the Irish people shall be denied and erased from history.
But there is a glimmer of light from this whole gruesome fiasco. For the first time in 50 years, many people understand that the EU is a dangerous institution. For the first time in my life, there is a growing body of disenfranchised and radicalized citizens who see the EU for what it is: a criminal organization bent on totalitarianism. It shall not deliver Europe to peace and prosperity, but instead shall catapult it backwards into a time we thought we would never return to.
It is unfortunate, however, that the main vocal opposition to EU expansion comes not from libertarians or classical liberals but from Marxists. A Yes vote was considered by many as a vote in favour of capitalism and free markets. Indeed, I would argue that this was the primary reason why many voted Yes. Similarly, among those who oppose the treaty there exists the Marxist apologetic that the EU, like the ex-Soviet Union, is not socialist at all but, in fact, "state capitalist." As long as this belief remains, popular support for EU centralization shall continue unabated.
But the influence of Ron Paul and the Mises Institute is being felt in Europe too, and their teachings give us hope and clarity of thought. We never had the culture of individual responsibility and free markets that characterizes the United States, but the numbers of those opposed to the EU are certainly growing. Every day that the internet remains free and unregulated, more join our side.
This may have been a Pyrrhic victory for the European expansionists. They got their treaty, but in the process they sacrificed the reputation of the EU. It bullied a helpless, desperate people into a Yes vote by bribing them with salvation. When salvation does not arrive, and things only get worse, how long can the charade continue?