The Austerity Treaty: Is the call for a referendum a sensible strategy?


The fiscal treaty, as agreed by EU governments, is clearly an austerity treaty and will impose serious levels of economic and financial pain on Irish workers for years to come.  In his blog ‘Notes On The Front’ Unite economist Michael Taft says “The Government, in signing the Fiscal Treaty, has effectively committed itself to introducing up to €6 billion more in tax increases and spending cuts in the medium-term, over and above what it has already planned”.[1]

The prospect of such an approach is horrific and should shock all of us into action.  Unless this is resisted we can expect even further tax increases, wage cuts and a slashing of all public services over the next couple of years.

The Irish government has clearly made every effort to try to avoid putting this treaty to a referendum of the people.  Indeed, the Irish Times reported on 1st February that the treaty was specifically designed to minimise the likelihood of an Irish referendum[2].  The response of most on the left has been to call for a referendum.  Michael Taft says at the end of the article quoted above “there is no question we are heading into substantially more austerity stretched out over a longer period – so much so that it might make Richard Tol’s prediction of a decade of austerity seem optimistic.

Boy, do we need a referendum”.

Meanwhile Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy has launched an online petition, saying “The government is scared of this going before the people because of the verdict that people may pass, given their experience of EU/IMF imposed austerity so far….. If thousands of people sign the petition, it can help create the massive political pressure that will be needed to force the government to hold a referendum.”[3] And on January 24th a Campaign Against the Austerity Treaty was launched at a press conference in Dublin hosted by the Campaign for a Social Europe and attended by representatives of a number of left political organisations.



But is the call for a referendum the most sensible strategy for building opposition to this treaty and this policy?  Do any of those calling for a referendum really believe that if we reject the treaty in a referendum that our wishes will be respected and that international capitalism will see the error of its ways and cancel its efforts to make us pay the gambling debts of international financiers?

I’m sure that practically all of them don’t and that most of those who are calling for a referendum (with the obvious exception of Fianna Fáil!) would argue that the only way in which this treaty and the general thrust of the austerity policies being driven by the EU/IMF can be defeated is through massive political protest. 

Anarchists would agree with this and would also go further and say that we need to not alone build a campaign of people power that will have the strength to defeat the government but we also need to engage people in developing and building a vision of a new society based on real democracy and equality.

So the question in relation to whether or not to back the call for a referendum is whether or not such a referendum would advance the possibilities of building such a campaign.  Or is there a possibility that a referendum on this issue would actually do the opposite and would prove to be disempowering and sow illusions in the ‘power of democracy’?

Would campaigning for a referendum give the impression that all that is needed to oppose the austerity measures contained in the treaty is to vote against them?  And then won’t the Irish government, the ECB and the IMF respect the democratic wishes of the Irish people?!!

But we all know – including, as I’ve said, most of those that are campaigning for a referendum – that the limited or non-existent democracy that we have doesn’t work like that.  After all during the last election both Fine Gael and Labour described the election as a referendum on the previous government’s policies.  Having won the election they then proceeded to ignore the results of that ‘referendum’ and continued to implement the policies of the old government.


So the campaign for a referendum clearly has the possibility to sow even further illusions in a system of voting that is far from real democracy.  As we’ve seen in previous referendums such as those on the Lisbon and Nice treaties if we vote against the way our political masters expect us to the ‘will of the people’ will be ignored and overturned.

Of course those on the left campaigning for a referendum will insist that their call to people during a referendum would be to ‘vote no and build the resistance’ (or some such formulation).  They will argue that the holding of a referendum will provide us with an opportunity to interact, debate and discuss with people.  But in the context of a referendum campaign likely to last no more than a couple of weeks to what extent can any real engagement about complex topics happen?

Will not how people vote in the referendum boil down to who they believe or trust more, or even what they fear least? At any rate the political ‘role’ of the majority of people as being relatively passive supporters/opponents who choose who/what to vote for rather than becoming active participants in formulating policy or shaping society will remain unchallenged.


But there is an even more dangerous aspect to the call for a referendum.  And that is the danger that in an atmosphere of fear and threats the people could well be bullied into voting for the austerity treaty.  It is not often that an anarchist would find himself in agreement with Fine Gael minister Leo Varadkar but when he said recently that a referendum on the fiscal treaty would focus not on its content but on other issues, he was probably right.

It may not have been what he meant but it’s almost possible to already hear Varadkar and his colleagues, and the collection of supposedly ‘independent economists’ constantly wheeled out on RTE (Jim Power, Moore McDowell etc etc) prattling on about us being thrown out of the Euro and the EU and there being “no money in the ATMs” and on and on if we are cheeky enough to reject this treaty.  Already Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has been quoted as saying that a referendum would present us with a “clear choice” of whether we wanted to stay in the Euro or not. 

If the government are forced to concede a referendum, the ‘debate’ will consist of a series of threats of economic ruin.  It is wholly conceivable in such circumstances – especially given the weakness of the left in terms of advancing a real alternative – that a majority of those who vote would actually vote for the treaty – a result which would have a demoralising effect on most of those who would have campaigned against it.  Such a demoralising result would do serious damage to the task of building support for an alternative way of organising society.


And any credible opposition to government and EU/IMF policy will have to engage people in a real discussion about alternative visions for a new way of organising society.  Otherwise what do we do – retreat into some sort of narrow isolationist nationalism which even if it was desirable in reality is impossible given the international nature of capital flows.  Can that engagement happen to any real extent in the context of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on a complex treaty? 

Rather than pushing the call for a referendum that would be disempowering and which the government/EU/IMF would quite possibly be able to bully a majority of voters to back, wouldn’t we all be better off using the energy that would be expended on such a referendum to continue the slow and painstaking work of discussing and developing the type of society we would like to replace this rotten capitalist mess with, and working out how we are going to do it?

WORDS: Gregor Kerr