On the march in Copenhagen

The atmosphere on the streets was the antithesis of the gloom inside the centre

Panda bears with flames coming out of their heads, flying blue dragons, the usual rake of tree-hugging environmentalists and an inordinate number of polar bears took to the streets of Copenhagen today. Estimated at 100,000 strong, the march set off towards the Bella Centre, the venue for the UN's COP15 climate summit, at 2pm today. There they'll greet world leaders and give them a piece of their mind, irrespective that no one of note has shown up yet.

Suited up like Robocop, the Danish police are huge and ready to take on any climate heros, but so far they have been left with very little to do. Since an early ruckus in which 400 people -- part of a peripheral march by the anarchist group "Never Trust a Cop" -- were arrested, the march has been overwhelmingly peaceful.

At 1pm speakers greeted the crowd outside Copenhagen Town Hall. The usual rhetoric and a guest appearance by the new climate poster girl Helena Christensen left me withering and cynical in the cold. But the spirit is there and the atmosphere is a positive antithesis to the doom, gloom and general angst among those inside the centre.

Whether organisers planned this march in protest or solidarity with COP15 is hard to tell. Their demands are vague. They are calling for "climate justice" and "a legally binding agreement". But they don't talk about numbers, and they avoid the kind of contentious debate over targets that has already caused drastic divisions within the conference.

The crowd is diverse and illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of this summit. Here, for the first time, environmental action groups have come together with development agencies to acknowledge the threat of climate change to human lives. It is no longer just a movement of the green elite, a luxury guilt that only rich nations can afford. References to the human effects of climate change are ubiquitous. As Naomi Klein said yesterday, this conference is about "people, not polar bears".

As the first seven days round up, it's clear that this first week was all about the little guys -- letting small island states and the less significant developing countries have their voices heard before China, the US and the EU fly in and bang up a deal. Whatever influence figures such as Sudan's Lumumba Di-Aping might have felt in the past six days (speaking out against the leaked "Danish text") will be obliterated once the real bargaining begins. What could prove significant, however, are the alliances that smaller nations have had the chance to make, if these can withstand the bargaining tactics of the greater powers. These tactics are the kind that stopped the Philippines negotiator and "dragon woman" Bernarditas Muller from joining her country's delegation at the summit.

But then this kind of cynicism has no place here on the streets of "Hopenhagen", and I have to get back to the march. After all, a bit of positive people action can't do any harm.

 

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump