Osborne needs to launder a euro bailout through the IMF

The Chancellor cannot be seen to throw good pounds after bad euros, but nor can he stand by as the s

Given the difficulty the government had last time it tried to get an increase in Britain's contributions to the International Monetary Fund through parliament, George Osborne is unlikely to relish the prospect of repeating the exercise.

The fact that the Chancellor, speaking in Hong Kong, has urged G20 leaders to help boost IMF cash fire power is testimony to how severe the threat posed by continuing crisis in the eurozone is to the global economy. Britain would be prepared to chip in if other countries did too in order "to promote the economic stability from which we all benefit," Osborne said. This follows similar comments in a BBC interview yesterday and to Parliament last week indicating that the government is preparing the ground for a potentially unpopular IMF cash infusion.

The epicentre of instability is, of course, the eurozone, but Osborne cannot make an explicit commitment to bailout Britain's continental neighbours for fear of aggravating eurosceptic Tory backbenchers. Labour has also made it clear that it would oppose a direct transfer of UK money to a dedicated EU bailout fund - even one administered by the IMF. If enough Tories rebelled, a vote in parliament that ended up being framed in terms of whether or not good British pounds should be thrown after bad euros would be very tricky for the government. So any UK assistance to precarious eurozone economies has to be laundered through the general IMF kitty. (In practice that is hardly different from contributing to a specific euro bailout fund and eurosceptic rebels are unlikely to accept the distinction.)

Osborne recognises that economics, trade and geography make it a matter of some urgency for Britain that the IMF is adequately resourced to help potentially insolvent eurozone countries. But Conservative party politics - and the slightly poisoned atmosphere of Britain's diplomatic relationships within the EU - make it hard for him to take any kind of lead in getting the crisis resolved. It might, in any case, be too late.

The round of European sovereign credit downgrades last week had a knock-on effect of damaging the creditworthiness of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) - the vehicle that is meant to administer bail out funds to keep the euro area functioning. There isn't anywhere near enough cash in the EFSF to cover the debts of all of the distressed euro member states, so the idea was always that the fund would trade on the aggregate creditworthiness of contributing countries to raise more capital. If the states funding the EFSF are themselves facing downgrade, the whole thing looks unsustainable.* (Germany is an exception, being a big economy with a solid credit rating, but Berlin is unwilling to evacuate its budget for the collective European cause.)

In other words, the fact that the euro rescue plan was really just a kind of pyramid scheme in which indebted countries promise to bail each other out by borrowing money is being exposed. That is another reason why the IMF will have to get more involved over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the draft eurozone-plus treaty, enforcing fiscal discipline and envisaging greater budget coordination between member states, is looking ever more irrelevant to the immediate crisis. It imposes rules to prevent a recurrence of the current situation, ignoring the facts that (a) such rules already existed and were ignored and (b) the current situation is upon us and cannot be cancelled out by wishing the rules had been obeyed more rigorously in the past. The horse has bolted and EU leaders are arguing about what kind of lock to put on the stable door.

*Update: The EFSF has been downgraded by Standard & Poors.

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

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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.