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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change