Disorder abroad, opportunism at home -- the euro crisis keeps getting worse

Balls' hostile position on UK money going towards an IMF bailout is clearly aimed at destabilising t

So it looks as if the G20 has failed to agree concrete, immediate measures to prop up struggling eurozone economies. President Sarkozy has said the details of a collective boost to IMF resources will be discussed at a finance ministers' meeting in February. Yes, February. In other words, those leaders gathered in Cannes who don't front eurozone governments are not mobilising (or indeed reaching into their pockets) today to stop bond market pressure on Greece and Italy.

It is officially branded a eurozone-only problem. In fact David Cameron has said it in exactly those terms: 

The primary responsibility of sorting out the problems of the eurozone lies with eurozone countries themselves.

What this means more specifically is that a heavy burden now falls on the European Central Bank where short-to-medium term market intervention is concerned. Meanwhile, France and Germany must now really get to grips with the medium-to-long term questions of political will, institutional structures, treaty changes and general revision of the EU project to make the single currency work.

There is no money left in Europe and no-one wants to lend anymore. I'd say we are getting pretty close to a "game over" moment for Greece in the eurozone.

But would a process to ease Greece out of the single currency make contagion to Italy more or less likely? Would a Greek exit suggest that eurozone discipline is real -- i.e. if you can't cut it in the club, you're out -- and thereby reassure markets that the crisis is being dealt with in a rigorous fashion, or would it just suggest that the whole thing is unravelling chaotically and lead to another panicky flight from all southern European debt? The latter seems more probable (but then I am neither an economist nor a bond trader.)

From a domestic point of view, Cameron is spared an immediate battle with his party over Britain's contribution to the IMF. That is a small consolation though, as the general lack of commitment to a consolidated global euro rescue means continued instability and insecurity and, by extension, a weaker economic outlook.

Meanwhile, on that IMF point, an aside on Labour's role (bearing in mind that the UK opposition party's position is on the margin of the real conversation): Ed Balls has come out with a pretty hostile position regarding UK money going towards a euro bailout via the IMF. The argument -- made also, it must be said, by most Tories -- is that the Fund is meant to administer loans and set technical conditions for reform to nations only (something along those lines is planned for Italy). It is emphatically not meant to be absorbed into some wider European single-currency political rescue machine. The problem is, of course, that it is very hard to ringfence UK money once it has been paid to the IMF, so any decision to contribute more can -- as I argued yesterday -- look like participation in a euro bailout. That is certainly how Tory eurosceptics will present it.

I have a suspicion Balls was less pernickety about the IMF's constitutional obligations when Gordon Brown was corralling the G20 into a global economic rescue package. No doubt he has found it easier to arrive at his current position knowing it paves the way for a parliamentary alliance against the government, should there be a vote on increasing the UK's IMF contributions.

The last time that happened, Labour sided with the sceptics but the Tory rebellion wasn't big enough and the opposition whips not firm enough to get sufficient MPs through the lobby to defeat the government.

Feelings would certainly be stronger and turnout higher in a repeat fixture. The idea of Labour abetting Tory eurosceptics represents a victory of sorts for the shadow Treasury team over the shadow Foreign Office team. Douglas Alexander has generally been of the view that Labour should be playing the part of would-be responsible global citizens, exposing Tory recklessness. As one person familiar with Alexander's thinking on the matter put it to me recently: "it isn't as if Labour's problem is not being opportunistic enough."

Ed Balls clearly thinks the opportunity to destabilise the coalition with a parliamentary defeat is too good to waste.

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

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.