Ireland left to count the true cost of euro dream

An exclusionary venture that values banks ahead of ordinary people – this is not what we signed up for. By Vincent Browne.

Just three years ago we were being bamboozled into voting for the Lisbon Treaty, the then latest stage in the creation of a wondrous European project that would consolidate peace on the continent and promote yet further wealth creation.

It would also give Europe a voice in world affairs corresponding to its financial clout, give greater administrative cohesion to the decision-making processes in the union and incorporate the industries of war (defence industries) into the corporate structure of the union.

The Lisbon Treaty had arisen from the refusal of the French and Dutch electorates to approve a draft European constitution. The new treaty was devised to give effect to the purpose of the draft constitution, while avoiding the tiresome ordeal of obtaining electoral approval anywhere, except Ireland. The Irish electorate, at first, ungallantly baulked at approving this new enhancement of the euro project, as the French and Dutch had done, but then in trepidation, reversed itself in the second vote.

Prior to the temporary Irish blip in 2008, the EU appeared to many to be a momentous achievement: a political and economic union, involving 27 nations, across a Continent which had been ravaged by wars and strife for millennia. A union inspired by the zeitgeist of our age: free markets, deregulation, privatisations, "reforms" of labour markets, the neutralisation of trade unions that for so long had "held back" the forces of progress. Along with the construction of a foreign and security policy that was intended to give "muscle" to that union.

Opposition to that project was perceived as suspect: borne of xenophobia or ultra-left infantilism. It could not be because of concern with the reversal of democracy that the project entailed by marginalising electorates from any direct say in its design and ethos. Nor of any apprehension about the injection of crude neo-liberalism into the veins of the union, nor general trepidation over the fanaticism of zealots hell-bent on this grand endeavour, whatever the consequences to the people they so noisily purported to care about.

It is different now.

The device at the core of the European project, the euro itself, has proved calamitous. The euro involved the creation of a European Central Bank which, at German insistence, was given immunity from any form of democratic control, however indirect. It was also given control over one of the key regulators of economies: the supply of money and of interest rates, with a brief to control inflation.

The ECB managed interest rate policy to the benefit primarily of Germany and to the detriment primarily of Ireland. The ECB made it clear it would not countenance a member state allowing a bank to collapse, which was what partially inspired the bank guarantee here, although not its scope.

The ECB has insisted on member states absorbing the losses of its banks, even though the losses were in part the responsibility of agents in other member states. And along with the EU Commission and the IMF, it has imposed programmes of austerity on Greece, Portugal and Ireland, ravaging still further the lives of the poorest people of those countries.

The new institutional structure of the EU, which was one of the key points of the Lisbon Treaty, has failed to deal with Europe's debt crisis, a crisis caused in large part by the EU itself. The new presidency of the European Council has been a joke, a joke made all the more bizarre by the recent row between Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, over the sharing of executive jets.

The creation of a new position of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy to co-ordinate foreign and security policy has been another failure – the EU has been entirely wrong-footed by the revolts on its doorstep against squalid Arab dictatorships with whom it played footsie for decades.

Those revolts have undermined another central plank of the union, the free movement of labour and have added further force to a menacing plank, that of fortress Europe. Italian and French responses to the flow of immigrants from North Africa in the midst of the recent uprising there have included demands for border controls and a tightening of immigration policies. In several countries there has been a rise of extreme-right parties – in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the UK – all of them xenophobic.

For Ireland, the crisis has not been just transformative of the society brought about by the Celtic Tiger, it has also been transformative of our relations with the EU. Initially, we were the supplicants, pleading for favours via the Common Agriculture Policy, structural funds, regional policy. Then the model students, obedient and so appreciative.

Now, one of the problem children, truculent and resentful. And perhaps a little sceptical of a venture that is inherently contemptuous of "ordinary" citizens of the union, exclusionary and instilled with an ethos we should never have signed up to.