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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.