Geithner's arrival tells you how bad things are in the eurozone

UK officials say it's like 2008 all over again.

The fact that Timothy Geithner is flying in for today's meeting of European Union finance ministers has been widely reported, but the significance hasn't been duly acknowledged.

American Treasury Secretaries don't drop in at Ecofin meetings on their way to the shops, because they happened to be in the area, because they had nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon. This is a sign that Washington is alarmed and impatient watching EU governments fail to get to grips with a crisis that threatens to upend the global economy.

I touched on some of this in my column this week, but that was more about the domestic implications for the Tories.

The institutions that were designed to manage the single currency have failed and there is no political will -- not least because there is no domestic political constituency in any eurozone country -- to start redesigning the project in a way that would be financially sustainable for the long term.

The bottom line is that financial markets will not be reassured until there is some progress (not just a statement of intent) towards a deal that puts the whole German economy up as collateral for Greek and Italian and Portuguese debt, and the rest.

Now why would the Germans sign up for that? Well, one answer is that their banking system will collapse if they don't. But that just feels like blackmail so, not surprisingly, they resist.

I strongly recommend this piece by Wolgang Munchau in the FT (behind a paywall unfortunately). The gist is that Germany's constitutional court has effectively ruled out any level of fiscal integration deeper than the current stabilisation mechanism, and that is failing. So the thing that would resolve the crisis -- a major political project to embed the euro in new institutions -- is unconstitutional in Germany.

I generally try to avoid sounding apocalyptic, because it is often too easy and lazy to paint the worst case scenario and claim it is inevitable. But things really are looking very bleak for the euro now.

The coordinated intervention by central banks yesterday to keep commercial banks liquid is another short-term fix. The revealing thing about it is that the central bankers felt they needed to act and managed it because they are less constrained by the complex and competing demands on EU heads of government. In other words, central bankers acted because elected politicians can't.

That says a lot about the dysfunctionality of European governance in a crisis.

I spoke to a senior Treasury official recently who told me the whole situation was reminding him of the run-up to "recap weekend" -- the period between markets closing on a Friday and re-opening on a Monday when Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had to put together a plan to save the banking system from collapse in autumn 2008. Not a happy flashback.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.