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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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.