Greeks bearing debts

The euro was a bad idea in 1999, and it's a disaster now.

I have a long memory, and a thin skin, and often lie awake at night, grinding my teeth, reliving the insults born by Tories in our wilderness decades. I suppose it's too much to expect an apology from the politicians who were pro-Euro hysterics at our general elections, until quite recently? People like, ooh I don't know, Chris Huhne?

If we get rid of sterling and adopt the euro, we will also get rid of sterling crises and sterling overvaluations. This will give us a real control over our economic environment. (Chris Huhne, 2004).

Substitute "Greek drachma" for "Sterling", and that sentence reads really well now, doesn't it Chris? (Hat tip to Dan Hannan for a list of many similar, delicious-with-hindsight comments).

Setting Huhne's points aside, it's worth recalling the argument repeatedly made by those of us who didn't want to join the euro, because -- with respect to the Greek tragedy currently unfolding -- it was all so entirely predictable.

We said that a monetary union couldn't work, because a single interest rate for a continent of such disparate economies could not be suited to them all. Since the interest rate was likely to be set low to suit the productive Germans, it would spell inflationary doom for countries like Ireland and Greece.

No-one ever had an answer to the single interest rate dilemma. Part of the reason it was so compelling to most Conservatives (Ken Clarke, as ever, an honourable exception) was that we had lived through two examples where UK interest rates led to devastating domestic outcomes. The ERM fiasco of Black Wednesday is well-rehearsed. Less commented on is that we had all lived through what happened in the north of the UK in the 1980s, when an interest rate was necessarily set to control inflation in the south. If it's hard enough to make one rate suitable for a single state, it beggars belief that anyone imagined that a single rate could suit economies stretching from Dublin to Athens via Berlin.

As of course, it could not. The banking crises only exacerbated what was already evident: some countries had embarked on uncontrolled (by the ECB's central rate) inflationary bubbles of debt-funded spending. When the credit dried up, the crises set in. Now Greek government debt is worthless, and its people are rioting against the austerity measures imposed on them by the IMF, and the obvious route open to a country in such a terrible situation -- devalue your currency and hope for growth in exports -- is shut off from them, while they remain locked into the euro.

William Hague was derided in 2001 for likening the eurozone to being locked into a burning building with no exits. With apologies to the late, great Bob Monkhouse: they laughed when we said we didn't want to join the euro. They're not laughing now.

Not that being right in 2001 is any cause for cheer ten years later. In the morose phraseology of Douglas Carswell MP, we may have avoided the trap of monetary union, but we appear to have signed up for the accompanying debt union regardless. Still: leaving the euro must be Greece's least worst option. I know that exposure to Greek debt is worldwide, but (I'm sure an economist will tell me otherwise) would suffering that exposure be worse than throwing more good money after bad? Until which point?

Fans of the euro used to insist that it wouldn't, it couldn't be allowed to fail. I wonder how much of a soaraway success it feels to the people of Athens, today?

Graeme Archer is the 2011 Orwell Prize winner for blogging.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.