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: Getty
Show Hide image

Here's something the political class has completely missed about Brexit

As Hillary Clinton could tell them, arguments about trade have a long, long afterlife. 

I frequently hear the same thing at Westminster, regardless of whether or not the person in question voted to leave the European Union or not: that, after March 2019, Brexit will be “over”.

It’s true that on 30 March 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the EU whether the government has reached a deal with the EU27 on its future relationship or not. But as a political issue, Brexit will never be over, regardless of whether it is seen as a success or a failure.

You don’t need to have a crystal ball to know this, you just need to have read a history book, or, failing that, paid any attention to current affairs. The Democratic primaries and presidential election of 2016 hinged, at least in part, on the consequences of the North American Free Trade Association (Nafta). Hillary Clinton defeated a primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, who opposed the deal, and lost to Donald Trump, who also opposed the measure.

Negotiations on Nafta began in 1990 and the agreement was fully ratified by 1993. Economists generally agree that it has, overall, benefited the nations that participate in it. Yet it was still contentious enough to move at least some votes in a presidential election 26 years later.

Even if Brexit turns out to be a tremendous success, which feels like a bold call at this point, not everyone will experience it as one. (A good example of this is the collapse in the value of the pound after Britain’s Leave vote. It has been great news for manufacturers, domestic tourist destinations and businesses who sell to the European Union. It has been bad news for domestic households and businesses who buy from the European Union.)

Bluntly, even a successful Brexit is going to create some losers and an unsuccessful one will create many more. The arguments over it, and the political fissure it creates, will not end on 30 March 2019 or anything like it. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.