Britain is tied to the Eurozone – so why keep it at arms length?

Europe does affect British economic fortunes, which is why it is so counterproductive to pretend "so

Another quarter, another set of negative GDP figures, another drop back in recession for the British economy. The much talked about, yet elusive, recovery seems to be slipping from our grasp once again.

Many, especially Keynesian economists and those on the left of the political spectrum, will tell you this was inevitable. No surprise. Nor is it surprising that the government has been quick to blame everyone else for the state of the British economy. That’s what politicians do best.

According to the government’s script what is really to blame for the economic predicament we are in is the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone and the economic crisis it has generated. With our main trading partners in economic contraction our chances for recovery are significantly reduced, the story goes. Not to mention that the rising cost of raw materials like petrol is pushing our inflation rates up, while the global banking crisis is forcing the Bank of England to inject billions in the British banking system. At the same time, the printing of money is reducing the value of our currency, making imports of German cars, Japanese DVDs and American smartphones we love so much more expensive. And all the above combined is making the Bank keep interest rates at levels so low that they are starting to become unsustainable.

So much for the cherished economic, monetary and fiscal independence of Britain. The fact of the matter is that the government is, to a large extent, right. Most of what a very open but small and peripheral economy does is affected (and often dictated) by events that take place elsewhere.

The value of our GDP, the level of our inflation and interest rates, the very health of our economy are, by the government’s own admission, dependant on outside, European as well as global, factors. All we can do is tighten our belts and hope people will keep lending us money in affordable terms (their words, not mine).

As a result it is a bit disingenuous for the government to go on exclaiming their holy duty to maintain our economic and monetary sovereignty one moment while the next admitting that the very notion of "sovereignty" is void of meaning in the context of the internationally integrated economy Britain is plugged in to.

We are not just affected by the state the European economy is in. We are the European economy. Our trade inflows and outflows, our financial services sector, our supply chains and the source (as well as destination) of investment are one with those of the EU. And for good reason. This is the biggest market in the world and one of the most mature and sophisticated economies. Britain prospers when the EU economy does well and it suffers when it stagnates.

The plot really thickens when one keeps in mind that the EU has engaged in a process of monetary integration, soon to be coupled with fiscal and political union. No matter what the immediate and short term problems of the Eurozone (and its institutional architecture) are, the Eurozone and its single currency are so systemically important for the EU (and global) economy that it is a matter of when rather than whether the Eurozone will sort itself out and continue its path towards becoming a global reserve currency.

Before the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and the burst of asset bubbles in Ireland and Spain the euro had become the most held currency and the de facto second reserve currency. It has maintained that status throughout the financial and debt crisis of 2008 and 2010 and it has also kept its value, while global powers like the US and China have verbally and practically shown their confidence in the euro.

As a result we will soon find ourselves in a world where the global economy will be dominated by two, maybe three, currencies: the US Dollar, the Euro and the Chinese Renminbi. A situation that according to academic research (pdf) will contribute to the re-balancing of the global economy, away from the uni-polar and destabilising current system and towards a more sustainable multi-polar system.

The question is what happens to small and peripheral economies like Britain’s, with a freely floating currency like Sterling, when they get caught up in the headwinds of those three global reserve currencies and the enormous economies that underpin them.

Some people are forecasting that Judgement Day is approaching for the Eurozone. But the Armageddon they are predicting (or hoping for) is not going to take place. It is actually Britain that will have to make some important judgement calls in the not so distant future about how it wishes to welcome this brave new world. On the side-lines, affected by the elements of economic weather but unable to have an effect on them. Or as part of a strong and global currency. The sooner we start discussing the merits of that question the more prepared we will be for when the time comes to make this decision.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.