Papandreou and the one trillion euro question

Greeks are hoping for two things: leadership and a miracle.

It is not often that a prime minister stands up to make a speech to his party's MPs only to have his finance minister, and second in command in the party ranks, follow up by saying the exact opposite. That kind of political theatre takes epic dimensions when it happens as the country is on the verge of collapse.

But that is the state of Greek politics as we await a confidence vote that will determine the PM's fate. He seems isolated, having lost the trust of his people, the opposition, his party and his EU peers in the European Council.

Domestically George Papandreou has to deal with an internal rebellion in his own party, unhappy not just about the way he announced a referendum but mostly for having to lend their support to hugely unpopular austerity measures that has gained them the fury of the electorate.

Papandreou also has to deal with an opposition that has been playing politics throughout the process, refusing to provide him with political support in the hope they can force his government to collapse.

In the international scene, his referendum move has cost him all legitimacy with his EU partners, forcing them to accept for the first time that Greece leaving the euro is a very real possibility indeed.

So what happens now? A lot depends on the kind of deal Papandreou is able to strike with his own party and the opposition.

Many in the ruling Pasok want to see him go, not least his finance minister Evangelos Venizelos. The same goes for the New Democracy opposition. They have in the past 24 hours entertained the notion of a grand coalition government only to withdraw their support for such a notion hours later and suggest a government of technocrats to ratify the new bail-out package before calling for elections.

They are adamant not to offer any political cover to the PM and they want to ensure that he is nowhere near a new government.

Having said that the outcome of tonight's confidence vote is not set in stone yet. Papandreou might just survive, in which case the question is whether he will try to get the bail-out plan through parliament with the support of his party alone, pursue a coalition government that the opposition does not want or call an election.

The problem is that nobody knows whether an election will produce a conclusive result.

Politicians' popularity is at an all time low, no matter which party they come from. So the protest vote is expected to be big and a hang parliament very likely. Which means we will have to go into another electoral contest or a coalition government, which takes us back to square one, having wasted time and recourses in a divisive election campaign with the whole world watching.

Not to mention that the next instalment of IMF money will not be released until the new bail-out programme is agreed, an important factor in the equation considering the Greeks have some expensive bills to pay by mid December. Time is off the essence.

What does all that mean for the EU and the Eurozone? Uncertainty in Greece is causing nervousness in the markets with a direct impact in the way they view Italy, the latest victim of self-fulfilling prophecies.

But in many ways, and despite the turmoil, it buys time for the eurozone leaders to iron out all the outstanding details that were left pending after the 26-27 October European Council.

The fact is that two thirds of that deal remain intact and provided EU leaders push forward with plans to recapitalise banks and strengthen the EFSF (the eurozone's bail-out pot of money) the eurozone should be sound in the short and medium term.

Returning to Greece, the one trillion euro question is whether the country will be able to salvage its eurozone membership. The stakes are high and the consequences catastrophic.

A default and a return to the drachma will see the value of the new currency fall through the floor, with the cost of the debt, which will be in euros but serviced in drachmas, going through the roof. Greeks' savings will evaporate, not that this will mater much with the banking sector collapsing all around them.

Hence it is imperative that the government (and the opposition) get hold of the situation, abandon brinkmanship and Machiavellian manoeuvring and put the wellbeing of the country first. It's is hard to predict what the next few hours will bring but everyone is hoping for two things.
Leadership and a miracle.

Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK.

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.