After Greece, where now for the eurozone?

Time to look at the deep mechanical flaws in the euro's design.

It is by no means the end of the modern Greek tragedy, but the conclusion of the second €130bn bailout for Greece must mark a line in the sand.

Will the latest bail-out deal work? It is possible, but as the EU/ECB/IMF Troika made clear, it will be a long and bumpy road. But there is not much alternative.

Greece is, to all intents and purposes, insolvent. Agreement on the bailout package had to be reached because €14.5bn of debt repayments need to be made next month and Greece didn't have the cash to do it.

There are some who cling to the idea that a default and a swift return to the drachma would solve all ills, making Greece's exports cheaper and attracting tourists. If it were that simple, then it would already have happened. Unfortunately, there is no economic magic potion for a country so deep in debt and recession.

Were Greece to go into a disorderly default it would be required to pay upfront in cash for all its imports -- impossible for a country with such an acute cash flow crisis. Drachma and devaluation would simply see the Greek banking sector collapse and the country saddled with a worthless currency. There is no silver bullet.

One thing which goes without saying is that the eurozone, and the EU as a whole, have been badly fractured by the Greek crisis. Just as there is fury on the streets in Athens, there is also fury among other EU governments, particularly among the northern member states, about the statistical frauds committed by Greece and their government's failure to live up to their promises to cut their budget deficit.

The result is a toxic mix of reform fatigue in the south, and support fatigue in the north. More perniciously, the nastiest and crudest national stereotypes have returned replete with lazy, corrupt Greeks and talk of a "Fourth Reich".

Indeed, very few actors come out of the Greek crisis well. Certainly not the Greek political class which presided over statistical fraud and a corrupt system of public administration, although it seems likely that the Greek people will take their revenge at the April general elections where the historically dominant centre-right and left parties are set to be routed. Not the north European countries, who spent two years pig-headedly insisting that eye-watering interest rates and savage spending cuts should be attached to any rescue package, and then wondered why it was that the Greek economy fell deeper into recession and the debt burden soared.

Two years ago, months after the scale of its budget deficit had been unmasked, Greece's debt to GDP ratio was 140 per cent. Even with the first bailout deal and billions of euros of assistance from the European Investment Bank, the debt pile has now risen to 160 per cent.

The dust has to be allowed to settle now. The Greeks need to get on with the austerity programme they have committed to, and the German and Dutch nay-sayers must allow them to get on with it without any further humiliation. The eurozone must stop obsessing about the Greek crisis and address the systemic problems which still face it.

In many respects, the Greek crisis has diverted attention from the deepest mechanical flaws in the euro's design. It has allowed the conservative politicians who currently dominate the EU to establish a narrative of the debt crisis that regards all problems as the result of feckless overspending governments and lazy workers in Club Med, and that "structural reforms" -- for which read liberalising labour markets and reducing social protection - are the only way forward. If every country can be like Germany or the Netherlands then voila: problem solved. This approach is embodied in the Merkozy-inspired "fiscal compact" treaty.

This is utterly misguided and self-defeating. For one thing, all the evidence, from Greece, to Ireland and Portugal, and the rest of the EU, indicates that austerity programmes are doing nothing to reduce government debt and balance budgets. The diet of economic bread and water has, in most cases, actually weakened the patient. The EU urgently needs a growth and jobs strategy.

More profoundly, politicians must acknowledge that while budgetary discipline and more productive labour markets are important, they will not prevent the gap between the eurozone's richest and poorest stretching beyond sustainability.

For the eurozone to work effectively there will need to be a formal system of credit transfers to redistribute a bit of wealth from north to south.

Talk of credit transfers is -- like joint liability Eurobonds -- an anathema to the north Europeans, but it is a reality that must be faced. In a currency union with a single market, it is neither desirable nor possible for all countries to be like the member states in the virtuous north, with their current account and export surpluses.

The truth is that the north Europeans need the Club Med countries, more than vice versa, to buy their goods.

Up until now, the debt crisis has been about emergency resolution. With Greece now brought away from the depths of the economic abyss, and the fear of contagion to other countries slightly reduced, the eurozone should move away from crisis management to taking steps to ensure that the current crisis does not repeat itself. EU leaders should not kid themselves or their domestic electorates that labour market reforms and rules on budgetary discipline are the magic cure.

Without a growth strategy and an acceptance that the north-south economic divide cannot be entirely bridged, the current crisis will repeat itself.

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

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.