By SHAWN POGATCHNIK, Associated Press
DUBLIN (AP) — When voters in Greece and France got the chance, they dealt a resounding "No!" to parties backing austerity measures. The Irish could be next to give the European Union's austerity plans a black eye.
A May 31 referendum here asks the public to approve an EU treaty that aims to control nations' annual deficits and longer-term debts. But critics say the treaty ignores the competing need to stimulate growth.
Ireland, once staunchly pro-EU but increasingly euroskeptical, is the only member of the bloc putting the agreement to a national vote.
Analysts of the 3-year-old eurozone crisis say an Irish rejection of the treaty, combined with Francois Hollande's victory as France's president and a hard-left turn in Greece's parliamentary elections, could force the continent to shift in favor of less cutting and greater investment in growth.
And they agree that, even if the fiscal treaty is ratified by the minimum 12 nations required, it is likely to be an economic dead letter before it comes into force next year. Its key goal — to bind nations into tighter debt and deficit limits under the threat of EU fines — seems downright perverse in the face of widening recession.
"This is the weakest treaty that the EU has ever come up with. It's rapidly been overtaken by events and looks increasingly meaningless," said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform think tank in London.
Here are the key issues driving the debate over the future of Europe's fiscal treaty.
THE INCOMPLETE EURO
Economists broadly agree that the EU powers that be, chiefly in Germany, remain in public denial about the real underlying reasons for the eurozone crisis: the faulty, half-baked design of the euro common currency, with no central coordination of debt funding.
Its repair, they say, will require German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her uneasy electorate to accept the need for national debts to become European property.
University College Dublin economist Colm McCarthy, one of Ireland's foremost fiscal troubleshooters, described the treaty as "essentially an evasion, designed to provide political cover, particularly in Germany, for measures which will have to be contemplated if the crisis persists." He said its drafters seek to defend a fictional pretense "that Europe's problems derive entirely from budgetary excess."
McCarthy argued that, had the fiscal treaty been law since the euro's launch in 1999, its supposedly tough spending rules would have made no difference in preventing the current banking and debt-financing problems, with the single possible exception of Greece because of its track record of fraudulent government accounting. Nor would the treaty forestall further debt crises, he said.
Economists emphasize that the treaty contains broad get-out-of-jail-free clauses that permit higher deficits in cases of recession or unspecified external pressures.
Joerg Kraemer, chief economist for Commerzbank in Frankfurt, said the fiscal treaty was "not very strict." He noted that it permits a deficit-violating nation to justify its spending by citing "negative circumstances that you can't control. This could be anything. There are a lot of loopholes, and it's a bad sign that France does not even accept such a watered-down agreement."
THE RISE OF HOLLANDE
France's electoral embrace of Hollande deals a hammer blow to the central guiding force for austerity demands: the right-wing alliance between Merkel and ousted French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, known by the portmanteau "Merkozy."
Hollande campaigned on the need for EU leaders to forge a new growth-focused agreement that reduces the dead weight of debt on the most struggling eurozone economies. He says this will require the launch of eurobonds issued by the European Central Bank for funding the debt-refinancing needs of the entire 17-nation eurozone.
That idea is understandably detested by Merkel and many Germans, because it would transform other EU countries' separate debt-financing efforts into a European, and principally German, responsibility.
But the many critics of the eurozone system say this is exactly what the common currency needed from its infancy to combat the current funding crisis, which has already forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to take EU-International Monetary Fund bailouts and is pushing eurozone heavyweights Spain and Italy down the same road.