In defence of the euro

Greece isn't the "morality tale" the Eurosceptics think it is.

Is the crisis in Greece the first nail in the coffin of the euro? Critics on both the left (see here and here) and the right (see here and here) have used the crisis as an opportunity to take pot shots at the European single currency.

But Dan Roberts, the Guardian's head of business, issues a strong rebuttal today:

So far, the Greek drama has been music to the ears of Eurosceptics. Cries of "I told you so" echo from right and left as the recession exposes the predicted weakness of a single currency system that does not let overly indebted countries inflate their way out of trouble by devaluing. To some, it is a morality tale: cast with Greeks who fib about their finances, free riders in Ireland, and cocky Iberian property speculators. To others, it is a local version of the trade imbalances that wrecked the global economy, with Germany playing the role of China.

It is true the single currency both contributed to the credit bubble and made it harder to let the air out gently. Bank of England governor Mervyn King was positively smug yesterday when asked about the travails of the eurozone, revelling in a rare moment of schadenfreude as the plunging pound finally breathes some life into British manufacturing.

Yet just as the prospect of a Greek bailout has turned the tables on investors who were speculating on its demise (a short squeeze, in the parlance), the political tide may yet turn against the sceptics today if Europe can hold firm.

Supporters of the single currency should be able to point to a Greek rescue as a sign of its strength as well as weakness. Unlike Iceland, which is desperate to join the euro, or perhaps Britain (if the predatory currency speculators one day turn their attention there again), eurozone member states will demonstrate their unwillingness to be picked off one by one.

This has always been one of the main arguments advanced by the pro-Europeans: integration (be it political or economic) does not entail the loss of "sovereignty" but, instead, the sharing, pooling and extending of sovereignty at a transnational level.

In a world where speculators bet against -- and can bring down -- national governments, the euro, for all its faults, offers a potential bulwark.

As Roberts continues:

In exchange, Europe's politicians will have to complete the project they began 18 years ago in Maastricht. Monetary union (a single currency and interest rate policy) will now need to be followed by much greater fiscal union. No longer will German taxpayers tolerate fiscal free-riders, but no longer will Berlin and Paris be able to ignore the plight of the periphery.

Whether Britain is ready for this is a quite separate question, but sceptics might want to note that the abusive acronym PIGS -- coined to describe southern European laggards Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain -- has recently been amended by wags in the City to STUPID (Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy and Dubai).

Relying on a fall in sterling to sort out the structural woes of British industry also looks brave. Southern European economies were no healthier when they were able to postpone change by simply devaluing their way out of trouble.

He concludes:

The effect of speculation on the eurozone crisis is easy to exaggerate, but it is real. More transparency and rules would help, but the best answer to those who try to make money from the misery of others is to show them that Europe's taxpayers stand united against them. There is a reason why speculative runs start with the weakest first.

Even in the short term, I'd still rather be in Athens than Reykjavík.

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.