Once more on the European cargo cult

Well, with Biffo Cowen having been explaining the Irish electorate to the assembled heads of government in Brussels, it’s perhaps worth returning briefly to the theme of the EU, at least as it’s seen in Irish politics, functioning as a cargo cult. Actually, the myth of “Europe” has become very much ingrained in the popular consciousness as in the simplistic equation Europe = Prosperity. It’s also a crucial part of the Eurocrats’ sales pitch to the like of the Bulgarians and Croats – knuckle under, accept a little pain at the outset and, who knows, in a few short years you too could be on the pig’s back.

Does this hold water? A serious historical analysis of the southern Irish economy is sadly lacking, or at least I haven’t come across one. But I think there’s some faulty causality here, of the type that spawns cargo cults.

It would be interesting to go back in time twenty years and ask people whether the EEC had brought prosperity to our wee island. In fact, membership was to a large extent a counsel of despair – having abandoned the project of economic independence, the Dublin government saw no alternative to following the Brits in. But this wasn’t followed by economic expansion. What it was followed by was the collapse of important native industries like sugar and paper, thanks to the removal of subsidies and protectionist barriers. And this then led into the crisis of the 1980s. There were other factors at work – basically the global recession plus O’Donoghuenomics – but the destruction of the Irish industrial base didn’t exactly help.

On the countervailing side we had the structural funds and the CAP. Whether those compensated for the industrial collapse is debateable. What’s not debatable is that these goodies were restricted more or less to two sectors – road-building and the big farmers.

But can Europe take the credit for the Celtic Tiger? Maybe in an indirect sort of way, coming out of Maastricht, when there was an idea that the Single Market would be supplemented by protectionist barriers being set up around the EU. That then led to a rush of investment from American corporations looking to establish beachheads within the EU. But there are a few counterintuitive points worth considering. One is that none of this would have been possible without the Greenspan boom in the States. Another is that the inward investment was overwhelmingly American with an admixture of Asian – not much came from the continent. Finally, there was a lot more American investment in Britain – it’s just that the small size and low starting point of the Irish economy allowed for a far more dramatic per capita impact.

So, where are we now? The American boom seems to be dying on its arse, and the downturn there has already started to have a depressing effect here. The structural funds have run out. The fisheries have been decimated (notice that every area that’s dependent on fishing voted massively against Lisbon), and Mandy Mandelson seems hell-bent on destroying Irish agriculture before he’s done. Put that together with the people who didn’t benefit all that much from the boom in the first place, and you’ve got the outlines of the working-class and small farmer No.

And what remains on offer? A continuance of (pardon the mixed religious metaphor) voodoo economics based on the idea that a combination of neo-Friedmanite nostra and sheer bluff can see us through the rocky times ahead. And the loss of an automatic EU commissioner, which might not seem important to the big countries, but to the smaller countries looks very much like the big players carving up an institution where everyone is supposed to have a voice. As for the supposed progressive measures around workers’ rights and the environment, where is it written that we are so backward we can’t do these things on our own, but need to have them imposed from Brussels?

For more on the Lisbon vote, the compulsively readable Slobodan Antonić has some pertinent thoughts.


  1. H.G. said,

    June 21, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Can you translate Slobodan’s piece?

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Mary Daly has done some good work on Irish economic history. To be honest I can’t see it but as having an effect. As regards being the author of the Celtic Tiger, well, not so certain about that. I suspect structural funds were a big assist, but not the only factor. High levels of education. The English language, in the sense that it allowed for a familiarity (but also a not-being- English!) to multinationals. Geographic location on the periphery. Openess to the US, but closeness to the EU. All played their part.

    As regards ‘where is it written that we are so backward we can’t do these things on our own, but need to have them imposed from Brussels?’, it’s a fair question, but in answering it I’d see two distinct elements.

    Firstly, as regards ‘imposition’, one thing national governments have been careful to do is surround workers’ rights with opt-outs. So the issue of imposition isn’t quite as clear cut as it may seem.

    Secondly, I genuinely can’t see how environmental measures taken on a country by country basis across some of the most industrialised terrain on the planet is going to work, the exemplary effect of transnational EU standards is probably the only way – short of diktat – to do so. And to read today as we do that Sammy Wilson, NI Minister for the Environment (shurely shome mishtake), perhaps with tongue in cheek – perhaps not, has attempted to bat away the issue by suggesting that it’s the preserve of “bearded, sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading, muesli-eating environmentalists” tells us that there’s a fair old bit of work to be done yet and that such measures will require at least some heft to overcome that sort of resistance. Where is that heft going to come from? A UK that is dilatory in its approach to such matters and all too easily swayed by quick fixes and the nuclear industry? The RoI? Hardly the option for Mr. Wilson.

    And that leads onto another point. It is that exemplary effect, the sense that there are international standards and norms which has been so important to the EU project and makes it quite unlike other transnational projects. And historically there is an issue that the RoI was slow to the point of recalcitrance in moving forward on social issues. Consider how it took Paddy Hillery (no hero of mine usually) to ensure that EEC norms re equal wages for men and women applied in the RoI. I’ve said it before, sure we’d have got there in the end – one hopes – under our own steam, but the delay? How many years considering condoms were only legally available for sale publicly in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

    And this is true of large sections of EU legislation. Their very existence put it up to the RoI government to do something because a large standing body of law on human rights, social rights, etc already existed, was in operation across a large number of countries etc etc. Progressives in the RoI could point to that. By way of comparison a flick through the SF website is instructive to see how it calls (and it’s Northern MEP in particular) for EU standards in a rake of areas to be implemented. Why so? Because they’re generally good standards tried and tested in vastly more congenial political contexts and environments (to us on the left) than good old centre centre/right RoI and the North/UK. And that is another factor. The EU has tended to push the societal dial ever so slightly leftwards simply because it has underpinned the concept of activist states, not necessarily economically interventionist, but certainly a far cry from the deregulation manias of the US. In the context of a legendarily conservative approach to state and government in the RoI this was near revolutionary.

    That said the number of derogations has meant that far from being a monolithic imposition it still remains a patchwork. But, I see no harm in that.

    There’s certainly a lot in what you say about the ‘myth’ of Europe equating with prosperity. But it’s not just limited to that. It also equates to political stability, a precious commodity across the continent and in the Irish context – at least until recently – ‘modernity’. Now how chimerical these may be in practice it goes more than half way to explaining its power, and I guess for all the drabness the reality isn’t the worst.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 24, 2008 at 9:20 am

    There’s something to that in terms of setting a bar for legislation. I suppose I’d rather have this sort of thing done at home. It’s a bit like when the British forced the Isle of Man to legalise homosexuality – if I’d been on Man I’d have been campaigning for legalisation, but I would still have been unhappy about the imposition. And yes, there’s a good strong argument for coordination when it comes to the environment.

    HG, I’m tempted to translate Slobodan. It’s just that his columns are usually very good, and by the time I’d done this one another zinger would be along. I’ll have another look at it anyway.

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