Eurozone soap opera reveals a damaged relationship with markets

Democracies need to get some self-respect.

We’re all familiar with the story. Girl meets glamorous guy with flashy car and nice teeth who promises her the world. He screws around, and when she gets angry, he threatens to leave. But by now our girl is so dependent on the guy she’s desperate for him to stay. Sobbing, she throws herself at his feet and promises she’ll do better.

This soap opera can help us understand what’s playing out in the eurozone.

States fell in love with markets, and they let us down. Financial deals we depended on turned out to be phonies. When we talk about introducing extra regulation to prevent this happening again, financial institutions threaten to leave our borders and seek pleasure elsewhere.

Like the girl, democracies are now the ones offering to change. At the centre of the emerging eurozone plan is a call for fiscal integration, whereby states promise to abide by strict spending limits in return for bailout funds. But the underlying causes of under-regulation and overconcentration of market power remain unsolved. Our relationship with the City still suffers from an imbalance of power and we’re still at risk.

We need to be more honest about what triggered the current European crisis. Apart from Greece, the problem was not unsustainable levels of public spending. It was banks handing out risky loans and stockpiling bad debts. Spain is a classic example. The country ran a balanced budget until 2008, when it was forced to pile horrific property debts onto the public balance sheet to bail out irresponsible lenders. As this fantastic BBC graph shows  (see total debt graph), this is a common pattern for most countries.

I don’t want to abdicate responsibility. We all took on those loans from the banks when we shouldn’t. We all enjoyed that party in a bubble and lived a false dream when we should have kept a tighter eye on reality. Britain should have been in surplus from 2004-2008. The girl in our story should have been brave enough to see the writing on the wall. We should have taken action earlier.

But we are where we are. All we can do is change our behaviour now. It’s understandable that Merkel wants fiscal rules on states to make sure they don’t blow German money. But without addressing the banks too, you’re setting up a terrible incentive problem. Everyone knows if the girl gets back with the guy without punishing him for cheating, he’s going to do it again. In fact now he knows he can get away with it, he’s more likely to.

Sadly in the middle of the crisis, no country feels strong enough to limit financial services, whether it improves stability or not. In a desperate attempt to grow, governments are happy for banks to throw money at anything. Any bubble is better than stagnation. We don’t have the self-esteem or self-confidence to challenge our irresponsible partner and build a better relationship.

Although there is some talk of banking union, this is more about sharing bad debts than introducing stronger lending conditions. Although some like former F&C chairman Robert Jenkins says this may change, at the moment the assumption that “liquidity is free and will and will be freely available” continues to hold.

Britain is one of the greatest sufferers of self-delusion. Osborne is massively opposed to the transaction tax – the one small move Europe might be prepared to take to challenge the City – and he used his recent Mansion House speech to announce that the state will be underwriting risky loans. He’s pulled back on the already watered down proposals of the Vickers Commission, reducing the required amount of back up deposits to three per cent when columnists like Martin Wolf at the FT are calling for ten per cent.

You don’t have to be an agony aunt to figure out what comes next. Without a change in this poisonous relationship, we’re setting ourselves up for another fall. Our girl needs to rediscover her self-respect. Get it wrong, and it will hurt. But get it right, and democracies and markets have a chance to build a new, more honest and productive future together.

Democracies and markets could still find a more stable future together. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle