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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.