There have been a whole series of elections in European states in the last week. Voters in Britain, Italy, Greece, Germany and France have all gone to the polls. Most of the media focus has been on the electoral outcomes in France, with the election of a Socialist President Francois Hollande, and on Greece where the government parties saw their support sharply decline.
In effect the elections in France and Greece were referendums on the strategy of austerity which French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel championed and successfully imposed on the EU in the last two years – austerity lost!
The defeat of Sarkozy and of other conservative parties and governments is evidence of a tide of change that is taking place in many European countries.
Since the economic crisis gripped Europe the conservative governments that dominate the EU have pursued austerity policies. In March they agreed to the introduction of an Austerity (Fiscal Compact) Treaty.
The result of this ideological adherence to austerity has been a deepening of the economic and banking crisis within Europe. State deficits have increased, public services have been slashed, unemployment has soared and poverty has increased.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the south of Ireland. Since 2008 there have been five austerity budgets and €24.6 billion worth of cuts. Government growth predictions for the economy have had to be reduced time and time again. In that same period the Irish state has seen its exchequer deficit – which austerity was supposed to cut - double from €12.7 billion in 2008 to €24.9 billion in 2011.
At the same time the social and human consequences of the austerity policies pursued by the government has been grave. Almost 15% or half a million citizens are out of work; emigration is again widespread; huge cuts have been inflicted on health and education and other public services; and new taxes have added to the distress of households.
Ordinary citizens understand, better than the governments of Europe and the spin doctors of austerity that you can’t cut your way out of a recession. Imposing deep cuts to public services; reducing wages and welfare payments, and imposing new taxes on low and middle income families in a recession just makes the recession worse.
Quite clearly austerity is not working. The election results across Europe are evidence that there is a ground swell of opinion among citizens now defiantly fighting back against austerity policies. They are voting out those politicians and parties pursuing austerity.
On May 31st citizens will have their opportunity to vote in a referendum. The choice before them is to either endorse austerity, by writing it into the constitution, or voting No and joining the growing European wide movement that is demanding an end to austerity, as well as investment in jobs and growth.
With the popular tide in Europe demanding jobs and in an effort not to be wrong footed by the growing opposition to austerity, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil have rediscovered the importance of a jobs and growth strategy.
Monsieur Hollande is now flavour of the month for all three parties as they trip over each other rushing to declare their support for his position and some even claiming that they were saying all of this before he was!
Citizens will not be fooled by this. Or by the rhetoric. The truth is that prior to a succession of EU summits Sinn Féin urged the government to ensure that growth and jobs were at the heart of any subsequent agreement. It rejected this sensible approach.
On the contrary it chose to sign up to a Fiscal Compact Treaty that will lock this state into austerity policies for years to come and will see the government hand significant fiscal sovereignty over to bureaucrats in Europe.
Under the Troika deal the government and Fianna Fáil agreed to a bailout programme that commits this government to €8.6 billion of additional cuts for the next three years. Under the Austerity Treaty the work of reducing the structural deficit to 0.5% will mean more cuts of €6 billion. In addition the state has signed up to giving €11 billion to the European Stability Mechanism.
Where does the government plan to get this money? Thus far it has failed to say.
Of equal importance is the political direction the Austerity Treaty is taking. The head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi spelt it out last week. Speaking in Barcelona Draghi set out his vision for Europe in the next ten years. He said: “We want to have a fiscal union. We have to accept the delegation of fiscal sovereignty from the national governemnts to some form of central authority.”
This means that the Irish government has chosen to go down a path which will lead to Europe deciding what our tax regime is; how much citizens will pay in taxes and how much is paid out on welfare to those in need.
Do Irish citizens want to be a province of a European super state where technocrats – who have taken a succession of bad decisions for Europe in recent years - take decisions for Irish citizens with no accountability?
So, where to now? Austerity is in retreat but conservative governments across Europe, and Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Micheál Martin, remain ideologically committed to austerity. The referendum on May 31st is an opportunity for Irish citizens to say enough and no more to austerity. Vote No for Jobs and investment in the economy.