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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.