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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”