After Portugal, what next?

The EU’s bailout fund should not make billions from member states’ misery.

EU leaders have just agreed a treaty change to create a permanent European Stability Mechanism to protect the eurozone – a European Monetary Fund in all but name.

The details about the fund, its lending capacity and the way it will work in practice are hazy, though leaked documents from the European Council indicate that it will have a range of financial instruments at its disposal. Given that the banks of just three EU countries – Britain, France and Germany – are exposed to over €1trn of government debt, were a country like Italy or Spain to face a Greek- or Irish-style crisis, it is questionable whether the fund would be sufficient.

The new mechanism will not help Portugal if, following the collapse of the Socialist government orchestrated by the opposition Conservatives, the country has to seek an EU bailout. But we can safely assume that should Portugal or other countries face the economic abyss, as Greece and Ireland did in 2010 (and still face), they will not be charged such punitive interest rates.

At last week's summit the Greek government was given a 1 per cent cut in the interest it will have to pay back. It will pay back its €130bn loan at just over 4 per cent, and be given seven years to pay back its debts.

Ireland was not treated so kindly. After being forced to take a €80bn loan at 6 per cent last December, the new Fine Gael/Labour government, which was elected with a mandate to renegotiate the terms of the loan, was offered a 1 per cent cut. Quite rightly, the new Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, told the summit, dominated by Germany and France, where to stick their offer.

Sub-prime cuts

What the likes of Germany and France have not grasped is that the crises in Greece and Ireland are fundamentally different. Greece faced economic meltdown when the incoming Socialist government found that its predecessors had cooked the books on an impressive scale.

The country's budget deficit was over 12 per cent – not the 3.7 per cent announced by the previous government. Market speculation, combined with the fact that Greek productivity had declined by 50 per cent compared to Germany in a decade, and a system which allowed massive tax evasion, brought the country to its knees.

Ireland's case is different. Like Britain and the US, its housing market boomed and then suddenly burst when the sub-prime crisis hit, and its banks needed huge taxpayer bailouts to stay afloat. Unlike Britain and the US, the biggest Irish banks – Anglo-Irish and Ulster Bank – were still too broke to function. A second vast taxpayer bailout and a disastrous austerity budget (George Osborne, take note) pushed Ireland's deficit to a whopping 32 per cent of GDP.

However, unlike Greece, Ireland never asked for a bailout. It was strong-armed into accepting one. The truth is that it would be economically logical for Ireland to have allowed its banks to default. Many banks would have lost billions – RBS would have lost £40bn, and Deutsche Bank a similar sum – but Irish taxpayers would not have been saddled with paying back €80bn at a 6 per cent interest rate. As it stands, it may well take a generation for the Irish to recover.

There's profit to be made . . .

It is outrageous that, in their dealings with the Irish, EU countries have behaved like the investment banks for which they blamed the financial crisis. For example, the UK Treasury stands to rake in £475m from its £7bn loan to the Irish, and it is far from the worst offender.

If the euro is to survive, this "beggar thy neighbour" approach will have to stop. If not, the stark reality is that the gap between rich and poor nations in the eurozone will get wider and the single currency will collapse. European economic and monetary union cannot survive if its member states seek to make huge profits from another's misery.

The reality is that, while the Fianna Fail government allowed an unsustainable housing boom and reckless investments by its financial sector, Ireland is not solely to blame for the mess it finds itself in. A right-wing "Franco-German" alliance may be dictating austerity cuts and claiming that the crisis must lead to radical pension and wage reform, but it needs to learn a few home truths.

For example, were Spain to go bust, the French and German governments would have to make huge bailouts of their banks. Besides, by keeping wage levels artificially low to stifle domestic consumption, Germany has helped preserve its already vast trade surplus while also preventing other EU countries from exporting their way out of difficulty.

So Ireland, embattled as it may be, has a stronger hand than you might think. So might Portugal and others. If its demand for a loan at reasonable rates is rejected, Ireland could turn around and allow Anglo-Irish, which the new government intends to liquidate anyway, to default.

That would be the move of last resort, but it would at last challenge the arrogance and complacency of the "Franco-German" alliance, which ignores the debt exposure of its own financial sector, and has the temerity to try to impose its will on the rest of Europe.

Ben Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament.

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.