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

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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