Greek bailout sets Europe on collision course with Tories

There's an aspect of the eurozone crisis that has yet to register with the British public.

The leaders of eurozone member countries did a deal to bail out Greece for the simple and compelling reason that failure to do so would have indicated that the entire single currency project was unsustainable. It doesn't take much effort of imagination to picture how financial markets would have responded to that revelation. Few things concentrate the mind like the threat of total economic meltdown.

So, for their European leaders' ability to recognise imminent catastrophe and avoid it at the last minute two cheers at most. Greece will be allowed to default in a relatively orderly fashion; its creditors will be cajoled, bribed and strong-armed into sharing some of the pain. (A good summary, of the deal, not too laden with technical jargon, is here).

Bear in mind that a lot of Greek sovereign debt is held by European banks, so while everyone is calling this a bailout of Athens, really Germany and France are staving off a financial crisis in their domestic markets too -- indirectly they are bailing out themselves.

That fact underlies an aspect of the eurozone crisis that has yet to register with the British public. The essential flaw that has been revealed in the architecture of the single currency is the lack of institutional mechanisms to correct economic imbalances between member states. Or, in English, you can't have a currency union without much closer coordination of economic policy. In that respect, the eurosceptics were right about one big thing: this was a political project from the start, demanding something like a European federal system to work.

That is now surely what will start to emerge. The systems being put in place to bailout Greece are only meant for Greece - in theory. In reality they provide the basis for a longer term structure for transfers between euro members in difficulty. The question then becomes: what are the penalties for those members that end up needing bailing out? The answer, inevitably, is some surrender of control over economic policy. This has already happened in Greece. Athens is implementing a brutal austerity package designed according to the demands of financial markets and foreign creditors, not the will of Greek politicians or voters.

In other words, if euro members collectively want to retain some control of their economic affairs and not be constantly reacting in disorderly panic to the whim of global capital markets they need to pool more sovereignty. They need to form something like a euro finance ministry and you don't have to be a fanatical eurosceptic to see in that the birth of a euro state.

Where does that leave Britain? The EU now looks very likely to head towards the "two tier" model that some French and German politicians, endlessly frustrated by British ambivalence, have long advocated. We would have an inner core with a single currency and closer political integration and an outer layer with different money but still a single market. To many Conservatives that sounds like a dream come true -- the open trade part of the EU but without the constant nagging of Berlin and Paris to harmonise every law and policy in sight.

But the idea that Britain could customise a perfect semi-detached relationship with Europe is a bit of a fantasy. Most of out integration with Europe -- those legendary regulations that Ukip and the Tory right seem to think render us all in perpetual bondage to Brussels -- are driven by the demands to harmonise standards and thereby allow free movement of goods within the single market. In other words, forget the single currency. Even as an "outer tier" member we'd want to retain a seat at the top table in order to have a say in the drafting of regulation. Brussels as the political bogeyman wouldn't just go away -- and our relations there would be tougher because the eurozone "inner tier" countries would (quite reasonably) try to exclude Britain from all sorts of crucial decisions.

In particular, it is hard to imagine Berlin and Paris accepting the continued dominance of European finance by the City of London. There is already a lot of muttering in the City to the effect that France has tried to use the credit crunch and banking crisis as an excuse to pursue a longheld agenda of smothering Britain's competitive financial advantages in regulation. That is bound to become a fault line in the next few years as European leaders try to build new institutional remedies to the crisis out of the short-term fixes agreed in relation to Greece.

What this all means is that there is going to be (yet) another round of negotiations over political integration. Britain might want to look on from the sidelines, but it will have to get involved in some capacity. That in turn will give the Tory right ample opportunity to demand the referendum it has always wanted on the whole question of EU membership. Like it or not, this Greek bailout has started a chain of events that brings European politics to the door of 10 Downing Street, via backbench Conservative MPs in a frenzy of righteous indignation. When that happens, David Cameron will be nostalgic for the phone-hacking scandal.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.