Are the ratings agencies doing us a favour?

At every stage of this crisis, action has been forced on politicians by the markets.

James Carville, Bill Clinton's pugnacious chief of staff, once said that, if he were to be re-incarnated, he would like to come back as "the bond market because then you can threaten anyone". With Europe's capitals still reeling from the decision by Standard & Poor's to downgrade the credit rating of nine eurozone countries, he might consider reincarnation as a rating agency instead.

In the European Parliament last week, German conservative Elmar Brok accused S&P of having "declared a currency war against us" and was widely applauded. Many rightly question the legitimacy of the power wielded by the big three rating agencies -- S&P, Moody's and Fitch -- which can effectively hold countries to ransom particularly as they were responsible for awarding AAA ratings to the asset backed securities made up of sub-prime mortgage loans which caused the 2008-9 crisis. Such is the herd behaviour of financial markets that a decision to downgrade a country's rating is taken as gospel truth, with the result that a nation's borrowing costs go up, putting a further squeeze on their public finances.

S&P's bombshell was merely the latest overreaction by the markets to the sovereign debt crisis -- Spain and Cyprus suffered a two notch hit despite having, like France, a far better debt and deficit situation than the UK - but it scarcely came as a surprise. Although there was cautious optimism early in the month when Spain and Italy managed successful bond auctions with the interest rate falling to its lowest level since last summer, rumours about a mass downgrade by the ratings agency were doing the rounds before Christmas.

But while "Black Friday" moved the condition of the eurozone -- as well as the rest of the EU including the UK -- from serious to critical, the political symbolism of S&P's move was as important as its implications for Europe's economies.

This is because while it is right to question the illegitimate power of the rating agencies, and their role in creating and then deepening the current crisis, it is the failure of Europe's supine political leaders that has ceded control over economic policy from democratically elected governments to rating agencies and the bond markets. For all their protestations about US rating agencies declaring war on the euro the reality is that Brok's boss, Angela Merkel's pursuit of a masochistic and fundamentally unworkable monetary policy is, in large part, responsible for S&P's decision.

In fact -- though it pains me to say it -- the rating agencies are actually doing us a favour. At every stage of this crisis action has been forced on politicians. For example, in early 2010 Merkel and most other EU leaders promised that there would never be an EU bail-out fund. Then market pressure meant that, in May 2010, the European Financial Stability Facility was created. Then they said that there would never be a permanent bail-out fund. In spring 2011 the EU treaties were amended to set up the European Stability Mechanism. Apparently there would never be a hair-cut on Greek debt. The December EU summit offered a 50 per cent right-down of Greek debt which is now being concluded between the Greeks and bond-holders. We have gradually edged towards sensible crisis-resolution not thanks to politicians but because of the financial markets.

Moreover, before we rush to condemn the markets, we should also remember that the departure (finally) of Italy's oft-disgraced but indefatigable leader Silvio Berlusconi was brought about not by one of his many scandals but because yields on Italian debt were spiralling out of control. To misquote the Sun: It was the bond market wot done it.

We are, of course, treading on very dangerous ground when unaccountable markets or neighbouring governments are able to force out elected governments but is there some truth to the idea that the debt crisis is too important to be left to politicians?

Last October Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean Claude-Juncker came out with the phrase that defines the political response to the crisis thus far. "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it," he said. It's a remark that is both infuriating, but accurate. I suspect that even Merkel and Sarkozy know that their beloved fiscal compact treaty, with its rigid budget discipline, is at best a diversion and at worst a complete waste of time. The prospect of either of them admitting this before their respective elections is extremely remote. The real solution for the euro area -- which will inevitably involve a large dose of money-printing by the ECB and common Eurobonds alongside stricter rules on budgetary discipline, and possibly the exit of several countries -- seems to be too frightening a prospect for politicians to dare mention it.

But Europe's political leaders need to decide, and quickly, if they have the balls to take the difficult and unpopular decisions that are necessary if the euro is to survive and the European economy to recover. If they choose inertia then the rating agencies and bond markets will continue to decide for them. And as for those who worry about Juncker's dictum, the demise of Berlusconi should carry a salutary warning: the markets don't care if you won the last election, if you can't govern, you're a goner.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

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.