A crass and reductive debate, from beginning to end

Throughout the debate around the Fiscal Treaty any argument beyond the purely economic has been entirely marginalised; the Overton window on this discussion is a porthole. By Mike Morris.

Very few people reading this will remember a confrontation that took place between Saeeda Warsi and Caroline Lucas, on a Question Time back in January. It was an entirely inconsequential discussion of Boris Johnson's latest brainfart - on this occasion, a new airport in the Thames Estuary - and was already a damp squib, since Germaine Greer has pointed out that the site was protected by the Ramsar Convention, and most of the politicians were doing their best to pretend they knew what she was talking about. Instead they talked blandly about the need for a "balanced debate" about air travel, with Warsi particularly strident in her insistence that London was a bit short on space for planes.

Lucas, as one might expect, didn't agree; she put forward a long and well-informed list of reasons why London was pretty well-served by airports as it was. Warsi asked her if she thought there should be any more airport construction in London, and Lucas confirmed that she didn't. "Then we're not having a balanced debate are we?" said Warsi, before Dimbleby hurriedly moved onto some other topic on which expenses-fiddlers could make ethical pronouncements.

It's easy to assume nothing much can be learned from this, beyond adding "understand what a debate is" to the list of Things Tory Ministers Can't Do. In fact, Warsi's aside - by virtue of its clumsiness - was the clearest demonstration of how political argument generally operates. It may have just appeared catty, but what she was trying to do was limit the debate to the terms with which she was comfortable. The "balanced debate" to which she referred was the debate about how to get more airport capacity around London. The discussion of whether this was needed was being tacitly excluded. This wasn't even by casting the fact that London has five airports and a greater capacity than any city in Europe as some kind of loony-green dogma, but just by treating it as an academic irrelevance, not the subject of discussion.

This is a tactic so common in politics that it's barely commented upon, although it's no different - really - from a barstool boor declaring, "I don't care what these economists say," before expounding on his theory that the Ireland's debt is because of all the asylum-seekers. It's just usually done with more skill, although recently that has not been the case.

One of the most noticeable things about the unedifying debate on the Fiscal Treaty is how often the voters have been told what the treaty is about. Labour has even gone as far as to erect posters telling us it is "about stability". On other occasions it has been "about" certainty, "about" jobs, "about" investment and even - most jaw-dropping of all - "about" growth. We have been reassured that it is not "about" austerity, or water charges, or the household tax. Even the name gives the game away; previous treaties were content being named after Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon, but this one has been proudly termed the "Fiscal Stability Treaty". It's questionable that the Referendum Commission should sanction such a title.

It would be unfair to pretend that this is a trait specific to those who ask for a Yes, and Declan Ganley's claim on the Frontline last week that “this is about bank debt” was quite bizarre. Having said that, while the media campaigns have been a festival of intelligence-insulting slogans on both sides of the argument, there's been an entirely wrong-headed tendency to suggest equivalence between their inaccuracies. Well, hold on there. Sure, the repeated use of the phrase "Austerity Treaty" is not strictly correct, and the treaty doesn't actually enshrine austerity as many have said... but it does give economic leverage in Ireland's budget to unelected bodies that have repeatedly enforced austerity across the Eurozone. So "Austerity Treaty" is a whole lot closer to the truth than claiming a document that specifically bans expansionary fiscal policies is actually "about growth".

The point is that treaties are not discussions or debates. Treaties aren't about things, they are things; they are absolute but wide-reaching documents that exist within specific, complicated contexts, and they have far-reaching effects that go way beyond the words on the paper. This particular treaty is a response to a monetary crisis and implements pan-European fiscal control on individual nation-states, many of which - like Ireland - have seen savage spending cuts drive their economy to a standstill while their debt mountain gets bigger and bigger. Just because Eamon Gilmore keeps shouting "It isn't about austerity" doesn't mean the treaty doesn't operate precisely in that context, and yet we are expected not to discuss the subject.

The result is a debate that has been crass and reductive from beginning to end. This treaty asks Ireland to surrender a huge chunk of its budgetary power to entirely unelected transnational bodies, and effectively prevents any political group in Europe from proposing an expansionary fiscal policy. This has enormous consequences with regard to democracy, self-determination, and how far a technocratic elite should limit the power of a democratic state… and yet I recently read an article claiming that the ESM was basically a credit union, and the flagship debate on RTÉ had a Dragon's Den panellist claiming an international political agreement was just like an overdraft facility. Hell, even Sinn Féin have focused on purely economic ways of criticising the treaty, when you'd think the "sovereignty" angle would be one of their primary concerns. There is a valid and subtle argument about shared sovereignty and where the lines of "independence" are drawn, but this particular conversation has been repeatedly drowned out by shouts of "Where's the money going to come from?" Any argument beyond the purely economic has been entirely marginalised; the Overton window on this discussion is a porthole.

The clearest example is almost too obvious, but it's got to be said so I'll say it. Greece is a democratic nation, but since the first flicker of moneygeddon we have been encouraged to see it in terms of an insolvent PLC. Any gestures at democracy have been portrayed as inconvenient administrative hurdles to be managed; Papandreou's proposed referendum was treated as fecklessly inappropriate, and the recent elections have been met with a tacit undermining of the leading candidates. It's become a truism to say that the problems in Greece are political, as if this is, somehow, an aberration; in fact, these “political problems” are just how a democracy should work. Elections and referenda are the fundamental condition from which all decisions spring, not a problem - and yet economic technocrats, supposedly the servants of the European people, are expecting its population to vote as they see fit and threatening to cut the purse strings if they don't. In Ireland, this has manifested itself with an anti-discussion in which the Taoiseach doesn't even see fit to take part, and the only justification for voting Yes being, "How else do we gain access to the ESM?"

Ultimately, this is the point of the exercise. This is not a treaty aimed at people, or even states; it is aimed at bond markets and shareholders. The slogans of certainty and stability make this clear, as does the name of the treaty itself. It is a targeted advertisement of Europe's united and responsible future, which touches the bases of financial reform (the ESM, fiscal control) while allowing the more powerful countries just enough room to be broadly unaffected. During the financial crisis there have been numerous references to “confidence” during “market instability,” and this is the result; it is a gambit to encourage people to begin lending money again. In short, it's an attempt to game the markets.

It's not really any wonder, then, that the debate is so non-existent. Ireland is being asked to vote for what is, in truth, a state-sanctioned confidence trick. There have been almost no coherent arguments made in its favour because there aren't any arguments, beyond the need for some - any - agreement to exist. Instead, we get list of slogans that need little translation to their core message: Vote Yes, Because You're Scared.

And ultimately, this is what has shaped my opinion more than anything else. This is a referendum that has treated people with contempt, and an agreement that treats them as a secondary consideration. In this, it aligns precisely with the political tone of the last five years. There's no better reason to vote against it. {jathumbnailoff}


Image top: IslesPunkFan.