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4 November 2011updated 27 Sep 2015 5:37am

Disorder abroad, opportunism at home — the euro crisis keeps getting worse

Balls' hostile position on UK money going towards an IMF bailout is clearly aimed at destabilising t

By Rafael Behr

So it looks as if the G20 has failed to agree concrete, immediate measures to prop up struggling eurozone economies. President Sarkozy has said the details of a collective boost to IMF resources will be discussed at a finance ministers’ meeting in February. Yes, February. In other words, those leaders gathered in Cannes who don’t front eurozone governments are not mobilising (or indeed reaching into their pockets) today to stop bond market pressure on Greece and Italy.

It is officially branded a eurozone-only problem. In fact David Cameron has said it in exactly those terms: 

The primary responsibility of sorting out the problems of the eurozone lies with eurozone countries themselves.

What this means more specifically is that a heavy burden now falls on the European Central Bank where short-to-medium term market intervention is concerned. Meanwhile, France and Germany must now really get to grips with the medium-to-long term questions of political will, institutional structures, treaty changes and general revision of the EU project to make the single currency work.

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There is no money left in Europe and no-one wants to lend anymore. I’d say we are getting pretty close to a “game over” moment for Greece in the eurozone.

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But would a process to ease Greece out of the single currency make contagion to Italy more or less likely? Would a Greek exit suggest that eurozone discipline is real — i.e. if you can’t cut it in the club, you’re out — and thereby reassure markets that the crisis is being dealt with in a rigorous fashion, or would it just suggest that the whole thing is unravelling chaotically and lead to another panicky flight from all southern European debt? The latter seems more probable (but then I am neither an economist nor a bond trader.)

From a domestic point of view, Cameron is spared an immediate battle with his party over Britain’s contribution to the IMF. That is a small consolation though, as the general lack of commitment to a consolidated global euro rescue means continued instability and insecurity and, by extension, a weaker economic outlook.

Meanwhile, on that IMF point, an aside on Labour’s role (bearing in mind that the UK opposition party’s position is on the margin of the real conversation): Ed Balls has come out with a pretty hostile position regarding UK money going towards a euro bailout via the IMF. The argument — made also, it must be said, by most Tories — is that the Fund is meant to administer loans and set technical conditions for reform to nations only (something along those lines is planned for Italy). It is emphatically not meant to be absorbed into some wider European single-currency political rescue machine. The problem is, of course, that it is very hard to ringfence UK money once it has been paid to the IMF, so any decision to contribute more can — as I argued yesterday — look like participation in a euro bailout. That is certainly how Tory eurosceptics will present it.

I have a suspicion Balls was less pernickety about the IMF’s constitutional obligations when Gordon Brown was corralling the G20 into a global economic rescue package. No doubt he has found it easier to arrive at his current position knowing it paves the way for a parliamentary alliance against the government, should there be a vote on increasing the UK’s IMF contributions.

The last time that happened, Labour sided with the sceptics but the Tory rebellion wasn’t big enough and the opposition whips not firm enough to get sufficient MPs through the lobby to defeat the government.

Feelings would certainly be stronger and turnout higher in a repeat fixture. The idea of Labour abetting Tory eurosceptics represents a victory of sorts for the shadow Treasury team over the shadow Foreign Office team. Douglas Alexander has generally been of the view that Labour should be playing the part of would-be responsible global citizens, exposing Tory recklessness. As one person familiar with Alexander’s thinking on the matter put it to me recently: “it isn’t as if Labour’s problem is not being opportunistic enough.”

Ed Balls clearly thinks the opportunity to destabilise the coalition with a parliamentary defeat is too good to waste.