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.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit