Facing the Grexit

Could Greece actually leave the Eurozone?

A big switch appears to have been flipped in the last week: talk of Greece exiting the Eurozone has moved from wild blue-sky thinking to the sort of thing Very Serious People write about. The Financial Times is running a series on how such an exit would happen, beginning today with a piece quoting several Eurozone central bankers saying things like:

I guess an amicable divorce – if that was ever needed – would be possible. (Luc Coene, central bank governor of Belgium)


Technically, it [a Greek exit] can be managed… It is not necessarily fatal, but it is not attractive. (Patrick Honohan, Irish central bank governor)

Bloomberg echoed the statements, while Der Spiegel is running a cover that doesn't really need translating:

The macroeconomic issues with a Greek exit – a Grexit – would be immense. Paul Krugman lays out a convincing four-step guide as to how the whole thing could result in the end of the Eurozone, "and we’re talking about months, not years, for this to play out."

Krugman sees a Grexit leading to massive capital flight from Spain and Italy as savers race to move their deposits to Germany. That leads to either capital controls to prevent the exit, or massive (even in the context of those which have already happened) European Central Bank loans to stop the banking systems of those countries failing. Germany then has a choice. Either it becomes a guarantor for Spanish debt indefinitely, while also tolerating a higher level of Eurozone inflation than it has ever been willing to accept before; or the Eurozone breaks up.

Even the smaller issues with a Greek exit are hugely difficult to overcome, though. Currency swaps are normally done with huge levels of planning, and a long period of both currencies running in tandem to enable things like vending machines and electronic systems to switch over. But because the devaluing of a new Drachma would be so strong so quickly, Greece has no real chance to do this. If it decides to leave the Euro, it needs to get it over and done with in very little time.

Last September, Josh Hempton, a hedge fund manager, looked at the closest historical precedent for this high-speed currency swap: the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

What they did was put troops on all the borders and made it illegal to take cash (or wire cash!) across borders. Then all Austro-Marks in each country was stamped - converted to Drachma for Greece, Marks for Germany, Peseta for Spain or whatever the currencies of the day were [If someone remembers the 1918 border splits better than me they are welcome to say...]

In this conception all Spanish debts become Peseta debts. All German debts become Mark debts. All Greek debts become Drachma debts. Unstamped currency goes worthless.

If you are going to split the currency I see no alternative to a big bang - and if you do that I see no alternative to troops at the border stopping transfers (and wire transfers) because shifting cash North looks so profitable against a sudden devaluation. Suddenly – and against all historic hope – its time again to guard the French-German (and every other European border) with troops for a week whilst the money is stamped.

Despite the fact that at every stage, the story of how the Eurozone will collapse is credible, there is a peculiar sense of optimism. As Joe Weisenthal writes, though, the thinking seems to be:

A crisis will be averted because to not avert it would be such a disaster. We'll see if that actually holds up.

The world looks to Greece right now Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.