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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era