Keep the Voters Informed About Europe

Ireland's voters may have to make important decisions about Europe's future. They should be informed about what's at stake.

One year ago the British people were asked if they wanted to leave or remain in the European Union. The simplicity of the question hid a mountain of complex issues that were beyond the ken of the average voter, and only after the unexpected vote to leave did the scale of the Brexit task become apparent. Decades of intertwined legislation will have to be untangled in a task so complex that some question whether it is even physically possible even if an army of civil servants were hired to complete it.

One of many lessons to be learned from this preventable catastrophe is that voters need to be properly educated about the implications of their decisions, but above all they need to be informed about how Europe works. Had the British voters been better informed about how Europe is structured, there is a good chance that they would have made a different decision.

American citizens are relatively knowledgable about how their system of government operates both at state and federal level. It helps that America is a single country with a cohesive central government with levers on the same control panel. There is one currency managed by one central bank and one treasury with its own budget, all of which is accountable to the people through the Senate. The three main branches of government have clearly defined roles and powers that are relatively easy to understand. Taxpayers in most states file state and federal tax returns separately, making it clear where their money is going.

Europe, on the other hand, is a much more messy place. The inter-governmental institutions of the old continent are like an onion, with various layers and different members in each one. At the core is the Eurozone, home to users of the Euro currency. Various other international treaties govern the relationships of the European Union, the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and a plethora of other international bodies with multiple overlapping memberships. Keeping track of all of the moving parts is a skilled job.

One such body, the European Commission, has now put a proposal on the table to improve the cohesion of the Eurozone. Championed by Emanuel Macron, France’s charismatic new president, and given a guarded welcome by Angela Merkel, the proposal is to create a treasury for the Eurozone, give it its own budget, and put a finance minister in charge of it. Luis de Guindos, the Spanish economy minister, has supported the proposal stating that a “window of opportunity” will exist in which the proposal can be enacted after the German elections in September. He argues that the current setup is dysfunctional, and the appropriate course of action is to either complete the job of integration, or revert to individual national currencies.

The proposal offers advantages in that it simplifies the structure of the bureaucracy and allows for more coherent policy-making, a longtime weakness of the EU, and would enforce minimum standards of good governance everywhere. The banking sector could be strengthened with risks shared across it, potentially preventing a repeat of the kind of taxpayer bailouts for ailing banks that did so much damage in Ireland during the financial crisis.

The value of a human face on the institution should not be understated. The European Council has benefited from having a prominent president, a post currently held by Donald Tusk, who serves as the face of the organization and helps to humanize it. Indeed Mr Tusk has become prominent in his dealings with the British as they make a pig’s ear of their ignominious exit. A future Eurozone treasury would enjoy the same benefit in that a single person can act as the spokesman and can set its direction while still remaining accountable. This is much more effective than having policy sold to the public by an anonymous committee of finance ministers.

The proposal offers an impressive list of advantages, however it may require more national policy decisions to be made at a European level to motivate underperforming countries to enact necessary structural reforms. This would make the Eurozone look a lot less like a chaotic club that cannot stick to its own rules, but could be a tricky sell to countries that are reticent about relinquishing more sovereignty.

That said, so far it is only an initial proposal and there will be much negotiating between now and its adoption. The significance of this for Ireland is that voters may be asked to vote on the proposal in a referendum. It would be tragic if the people were to be misled into thinking that the proposal is about something utterly unrelated, such as immigration, or any other sensitive topic that brings out the worst in people.

Europe’s trans-national institutions may not be perfect, but they are by far the most sophisticated of their kind anywhere. They are a triumph of international diplomacy and cooperation, and have promoted stability, peace, and prosperity for over half a century on a continent that had previously been convulsed by posturing, rivalry and violent conflict. They are a model that other regions in the world have sought to emulate, none with anywhere near the same level of success. They deserve a chance to continue succeeding.