Greece and France have defied the eurosceptics

Both countries voted for pro-European politics and confounded the anti-EU right.

So what does the eurosceptic elite, which controls most of the media, the governing party and has its representatives in both the Lib Dems and Labour, do now? For months, we have been told that "Eurogeddon" or "Grexit" was just round the corner. Lucky Britain with its pound and made-in-Britain recession was not involved as the dreadful Europeans, with the deadweight euro around their necks, would sink below the waves. The best and the brightest of monolingual English commentators flooded into the Plaka in Athens to sip their ouzo with their columns already written, explaining how the Greeks pulled the plug on the euro. The Greek people have let them down.

In the French election, the left-wing windbag, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was given star treatment by the BBC and English papers, who love a leftie as long as he beats up on Brussels. Then it was the turn of Alexis Tsipras. The Financial Times cleared away its usual stable of Nobel-prize winners on its comment pages to welcome the populist posturing of the new anti-Brussels oracle of Delphi. He said Greece would stay in the euro but not meet a single condition of continued EU help.

Both Mélenchon and Tsipras have a critique of the way the economy has been run in their countries and, more broadly, in Europe in recent years. They are right to reject the recession-generating austerity of British and German conservatives. But it is one thing to denounce 1930s economics, another to come up with policy that makes sense to a democratic electorate. In both France and Greece, voters had a second chance over multi-round elections to reflect and, in the end, they voted to reject the false prophets who offered simplistic solutions that could not work. They also rejected the advice from British pundits like Norman Lamont, Nigel Farage, David Owen, and nearly all press commentators, who insisted that the euro was all a dreadful mistake and the sooner Greece was booted out, the better.

There was generalised talk about the need for a referendum, promoted by both Tories and Labour, as if a single plebiscite (on what question exactly is never made clear) would settle the Europe question once and for all in British politics. Among our political and media elites there was an almost Trotskyist fervour of “the worse the better” as if a collapse into chaos of banks closing down and the euro being forcibly converted into drachmas or pesetas would be a ritual purging of Europe into a new entity approved by the bankers and bank-rollers of entrenched British euroscepticism.

But as so often, Europe failed to conform to the eurosceptic script. Both the Greeks and the French voted for pro-European middle-of-the-road politics. Neither the victory for the left in France or New Democracy’s win in Greece solves any of the underlying problems both countries face. Hard decisions have to be taken and there will be social unrest just as there was a year ago in Britain or as we suffer when doctors and bus drivers go on strike. There is no Brussels fix or German cash cow that can solve the democratic capitalist world’s core problem, one neither the US nor Europe will admit, namely that debt-driven economics and state-financing no longer works.

But just as the US keeps rolling on, so does Europe. Britain can join in a conversation about what needs to be done with the new MPs in Paris and Athens. Or we can believe the Greeks and French have made a terrible mistake and keep pumping eurosceptic iron, hoping the final crisis is only around the next corner.

UK Independence Party leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation