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21 July 2015

The Euro has become a prison. There needs to be a way out

I've long opposed the single currency for Britain. But a middle way has to be found between leaving the European Union and being trapped by the single currency, and not just for the UK, argues Molly Scott Cato.

By Molly Scott Cato

Eurosceptics will no doubt seek to capitalise on the misfortunes of the Greek people to further their own Brexit agenda. Indeed, it would be somewhat surprising if the Greek crisis and the way it has been handled by European leaders and institutions had not sown doubts in people’s minds. But as we enter the process of debating our place within the continent, and deciding whether this will include our membership of the European Union, it is important to draw a clear distinction between the European Union and the European currency of the Eurozone.

I must confess that the Eurozone is the issue where I have felt most isolated from other members of the Green group in the European Parliament. My colleagues are prepared to hear the serious reservations I have about the viability of a single currency, but do not sympathise with them. This in spite of the fact that nine other EU members have made the same decision as the UK, including Poland, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic. By doing so, I believe they have also kept hold of vitally important economic powers.  

Perhaps we have forgotten just what a live issue the Euro was in the UK until relatively recently. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were keen for us to join the single currency. That we did not is, I think, credit to Jimmy Goldsmith, who poured money into a single-issue party to prevent this from happening. In 1997 the party stood candidates in every UK constituency to force this sole issue into the political debate and gave the Tories the courage to stand against the single currency.

 At that time I represented the UK on the steering group of the No Euro campaign. As Greens we broadened the campaign’s base and provided political cover for the Little Englanders and their uncomfortable left wing allies.

I was also involved in the publication of a collection of essays that reflected a progressive case against the Euro. This outlined the extreme stretch of solidarity required by a functioning single currency area as well as critiquing the lack of democratic control over Eurozone institutions. It was a left wing argument for the preservation of national sovereignty, and for linking control of currency to where we vote, to match similar concerns on the political right.

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Studying as I was for a PhD on employment policy at the time, I was party to the near unanimity of UK economists on the issue. It was a fairly easy question theoretically: with such a diverse range of economies requiring such wildly different interest rates, it was nearly impossible to conceive of the Eurozone as a single currency area. The success of the currency was always going to depend on the willingness of countries with more successful economies being prepared to transfer wealth to the weaker economies. A generation of European politicians decided to force that issue and the rise of Euroscepticism across the continent is the consequence. What was designed as a project to enhance solidarity and encourage federalism has done precisely the reverse.

Greece chose the loss of sovereignty that comes with joining a single currency. That has led to the appalling situation it faces today of losing control of its economic policy and its national assets, just as Portugal, Spain and Ireland did in their turn. But we should not allow the siren song of the anti-Europeans to blind us to the fact that it was the Euro and not the EU that gave the financiers this power. We do not face any similar loss of control precisely because we rejected the Euro and its flawed design.

Ever closer union is the logic of the European project and of the single currency area. This forced Union, brought about by the design of the Euro, is now undermining the whole EU. Those countries that are part of the single currency area will inevitably develop political and democratic institutions to guide how their currency is governed. Indeed, it is an urgent necessity that they do so. But there must also be a way out for countries for whom the Euro is now destructive and a way forward for countries that choose not to join but still want to be part of the European partnership.