Cameron goes hard on the euro – but is this a sensible strategy?

Blame-shifting may be politically expedient, but burning bridges with the eurozone is not going to h

It all started with PMQs on Wednesday, when David Cameron said that the eurozone should “make up or it is looking at a potential break up”. In a speech yesterday, he reiterated the message, telling business leaders that “the return of a crisis that never really went away” should end the current dithering. Now, for the third time in 24 hours, the Prime Minister has pushed the issue of a eurozone break up, this time during a conference call with EU leaders.

Speaking to Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Mario Monti, Herman Van Rompuy (president of the European Council), and Jose Manuel Barroso (president of the European Commission), the Prime Minister said that Germany should do more to prevent the single currency from unravelling.

It’s unlikely that this will go down well with Merkel, the German chancellor. Indeed, it’s unlikely that any of it will go down well with EU power-brokers. The fact that Cameron is repeatedly stoking fears of a eurozone break up will probably sour relations ahead of this weekend’s G8 summit. Cameron has defended his aggressive approach on the grounds that Britain’s future is so tied up in the eurozone that it is necessary to put diplomatic niceties to one side. Yet given his unwillingness to help broker a deal, this seems counter-productive.

As the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball put it in a strongly worded blog yesterday:

Cameron’s arrogance and unwillingness to engage with European leaders does not even come from a position of strength. Britain is struggling with a double-dip recession thanks to the Tory-led coalition. What is it that makes Cameron believe he can attack the Eurozone when his own and Chancellor George Osborne’s economic competence is so severely lacking?

. . .

It is becoming ever clearer that the UK   cannot go it alone. Our economy is well and truly tied up with the Eurozone. To believe anything else is to regress to some kind of post imperial cloud-cuckoo land when the EU did not exist and Britain was great.

Of course, it is obvious what the Prime Minister is doing. The country is back in recession and Labour are now neck and neck with the Conservatives on economic competence for the first time in this government, even overtaking them in some polls. No 10 has decided to go big on the single currency. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, it detracts attention from their own floundering economic policy, and a show of strength over Europe may give Cameron a short term popularity boost with his own backbenchers and the public. Secondly, it is an attempt to redefine the debate on the economy – a debate which the government has lost control of in recent weeks – by casting the eurozone as the main factor in Britain’s continued economic woes. It is not a new approach – the first two years of coalition have been defined by an emphasis on the “mess left by Labour” – but it is a shifting of the blame.

There is some logic to this strategy – there is certainly no shortage of struggling foreign economies at which to point the finger. But ultimately, it is unhelpful. As a Guardian editorial argues today:

Britain is not uniquely virtuous in the face of global economic downturn and institutional failure. In fact, Britain is not particularly virtuous at all. We are in recession again because that is the logical outcome of the policies followed by this, not any other, government.

Blame-shifting may be politically expedient, but burning bridges with the eurozone is not going to help find solutions.
 

Angela Merkel and David Cameron, Berlin, Germany, November 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue