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.

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.