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Ireland’s Moment of Fiscal Decision

DUBLIN – “The construction of Europe is an art,” former French President Jacques Chirac once said. “It is the art of the possible.” If so, then Europe’s deconstruction – or, worse, its collapse – would be a shockingly fearful and painful business.

That was the situation faced by European leaders last autumn. The euro was in serious trouble, buffeted by rumors of imminent banking collapses. Bond yields in southern Europe were rising, and a pervasive sense of apprehension and fear cloaked governments in European capitals. But political leadership was sorely lacking.

Finally, in December, decisive action was taken. There would be a “fiscal treaty,” which would reinforce the Stability and Growth Pact and, importantly, entail automatic sanctions to ensure that eurozone members stick to those rules. At the same time, the European Central Bank unleashed its €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) long-term refinancing operation, which pulled the European banking system back from the brink.

These two measures were both timely and vital, creating a much-needed period of calm. In March, having agreed on the fiscal treaty, the European Council turned its attention to reviving economic growth, which will be the key to long-term fiscal sustainability.