August 31, 2009
With less than five weeks to go, the debate on the Lisbon Treaty gathers momentum. In Ireland, two very big companies, INTEL (Ireland) and Ryanair, have announced that they will be promoting a Yes vote.
Having been a consumer advocate for so long, my reaction was a bit mixed. I am not anti-business, quite the contrary in fact. However, I learned to bring a healthy dose of scepticism to many business demands on public policy. I also saw too many cases where business exercised a disproportionate influence on public policy – either directly or indirectly in terms of setting the political or scientific agenda. (To be fair, there were also many times when I worked together with individual companies and industries in the interest of European consumers. Industry, and “Big Business”, is not always the monolith its critics claim it to be.)
Those outside Ireland may wonder why INTEL has become involved. Well, the company employs some 4,500 workers in Ireland. INTEL Ireland is headed by an Irishman, Jim O’Hara, who said a few weeks ago: “I am scared as a businessman in this country, as a guy who has kids and grandkids and cares about the future of this country, I am scared at the prospects of us voting No and the knock-on implications for many years to come.”
(It would be nice if the INTEL workers in Ireland were also involved in the campaign but I suppose they would be suspected of acting under pressure if they were.)
The involvement of INTEL puts the lie to claims from some on the No side that Lisbon is a threat to Ireland’s low corporate tax regime. Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas.
Ryanair announced their involvement with their usual diffidence. Without Europe and the euro, according to CEO Michael O’Leary, Ireland would be run by “our incompetent politicians, our inept Civil Service and the greedy public sector trade union bosses who, through social partnership, have in recent years destroyed Ireland’s competitiveness, created an epidemic of useless quangos and feathered the nests of the public sector at the expense of ordinary consumers in Ireland“ (Irish Times, 27/8). There’s Commissioner Wallstrom’s next speech written for her already.
As is often the case with Ryanair, the devil is in the details. The company will spend some 500 000 euro, of which 200 000 will be spent on advertising and the rest on deeply discounted seats – to emphasise the EU’s policy on lower air fares which was one of the reasons for Ryanair’s existence. I’m not sure how this is going to work – will the cheaper seats be given only to Yes voters? (Yes, I know that would be vote-buying.)
The Ryanair experience is not always pleasant, especially if something goes wrong, but cheaper fares, and the democratisation of air travel, are among the major successes of the EU (and Ryanair). If I remember rightly, the mid-week return fare to Dublin was some 600 pounds (750 euro?) when I first moved to Brussels. In recent years I cannot remember paying up to 200 euro – even though I usually travel Aer Lingus. There are lots of important questions that cannot be resolved by market forces alone but without the single market we would all be a lot worse off, and not just air travellers. ENDAuthor : Jim Murray