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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.