A comedy of euros
Britain had a bad summit, but the euro zone had a worse one
AS YOU read this, lawyers are busily drafting a European fiscal “compact” designed to restore discipline to the euro zone’s economies. In the new year all but one of the European Union’s 27 members are to start thrashing out this treaty’s details. Meanwhile the British government, having fallen out with all its 26 partners, is promising that it will remain a central part of the union—and that London will remain Europe’s financial capital. All is well.
Except that it isn’t. Merely to set out these purported achievements of the latest EU summit in Brussels is to show how hollow they are (see article). Once again Europe’s leaders have failed to solve the euro crisis. The new treaty could easily be killed by the markets or by its rejection in one or more euro-zone country. The EU has suffered plenty of disappointing summits without the sky falling in—a good many of them in the past year. But unlike the marathon dispute over a new constitution, the euro is in a race against time because markets are pushing countries to insolvency. As investors and voters lose faith, the task of saving the single currency grows harder. Sooner or later, the euro will be beyond saving.
This summit also threatens to change the nature of the EU—and not in a good way. One reason is that it has plotted a misguided course for the euro. The other is that Britain, long ambivalent about its membership, has moved closer towards dropping out, even if that would be more by accident than design. An EU without Britain would be more parochial and less liberal. An EU without the euro might not exist at all.
Is it really that bad?
For all the fuss about Britain, the main failure in Brussels was to draw up a plan to save the euro. That requires a trade-off. Governments need to bind themselves to credible fiscal rules that provide incentives for good behaviour. They need to assume some form of joint liability for debts, with only the well-behaved benefiting from the shelter of Eurobonds. In return the European Central Bank (ECB) needs to give total support to all solvent members. That would leave much to do, especially to unleash growth and to reform the banking system. But investors would at least see a clear path ahead.
Instead there was another fudge, with neither the governments nor the ECB doing enough. In the run-up to the summit, the ECB extended its support for euro-zone banks—in effect lending them unlimited cheap money. That will help the banks and might in theory feed the demand for euro-zone sovereign debt. But it hardly counts as the “big bazooka” investors want, if only because the banks are wary of taking losses on ever larger stashes of government debt. Moreover, the ECB remains adamant that it cannot intervene as the lender of last resort to euro-zone sovereigns.
The governments did even less. True, the leaders pledged extra money in the form of loans to the IMF and left open the possibility of boosting the euro zone’s own rescue fund. But there are already signs that not all the cash will turn up as promised. And the fiscal compact that was the summit’s centrepiece is flawed.
The idea is to write fiscal discipline into national constitutions and harness the EU’s institutions to punish profligacy and excess. But such a compact will not safeguard the euro against future booms and busts. Until financial markets crashed in 2008, Spain and Ireland were hailed as economic stars, with lower public-debt burdens and healthier budgets than Germany. By the time their public finances went visibly wrong, it was too late. Worse, the compact will not resolve today’s troubles. The package dwells too much on austerity, and too little on growth. That risks aggravating the deep Europe-wide recession threatening next year, which could prompt a downgrade of the entire zone’s credit ratings and cause economies to miss their deficit targets—triggering still more austerity.
Although the compact was greeted as the acme of European solidarity, it is more likely to provoke strife. The summit poured cold water on the idea of Eurobonds, in which all members would share some or all of the troubled economies’ burden of debt. Instead the adjustment is being imposed almost entirely on deficit countries, guaranteeing that it will be long and painful. If in the coming years elected governments that impose austerity stir up civil unrest, outside enforcers in the EU will before long become a target for popular rage.
Already governments that agreed to the idea of a compact are warning that its ratification depends upon the detail. The Irish government is under pressure to hold a referendum that it would struggle to win. Parliaments from Slovakia (in the euro) and the Czech Republic (outside) could balk. France’s opposition presidential candidate, who is leading in the polls, says he would renegotiate the deal to get Eurobonds and a more active ECB. All across Europe there are murmurs that Germany, which has benefited so handsomely from the euro, is asking too much of everybody else.
A poor hand misplayed
However did David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, manage to unite them all? The answer is through a combination of political expediency, inept tactics and fumbled diplomacy. Mr Cameron’s plan was to seek safeguards for the single market and to subject some parts of financial regulation to unanimous approval, in exchange for backing a new treaty. When he failed to get what he wanted, he withheld his support.
In Mr Cameron’s defence, he has to contend not only with Conservative Eurosceptic backbenchers, but also a Eurosceptic public—just as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy also have domestic political constraints. Furthermore, Britain has real cause to worry about financial regulation. London is host to by far the biggest financial-services industry in Europe—in some areas it has as much as 90% of the EU’s business. The European Commission, egged on by the French and others, has produced many daft proposals to regulate it, as well as suggesting a financial-transactions tax.
But if the politics was expedient, the tactics and the diplomacy were not. Mr Cameron knew what he wanted, but went about getting it the wrong way. He presented a last-minute unilateral demand that would have partially overturned the principle of majority voting on single-market rules, which Britain itself first put forward under Margaret Thatcher over 20 years ago. Had he prepared the ground with other governments in advance he might have succeeded. Had he talked to fellow centre-right leaders on the summit’s eve instead of staying out of their political group, he would have known that he could not.
Mr Cameron’s veto was self-defeating. He may have briefly basked in his backbenchers’ praise, but if his aim was to protect the City and the single market, he has failed. Both are threatened more by Britain’s absence from the summits of up to 26 leaders that will now take place than by Britain’s participation in a treaty of 27 that placed no constraints on it. For decades, British diplomacy has been guided by a determination to keep a seat at the table. It has worked: Britain has not been outvoted on a serious piece of financial-services legislation.
Instead of closing the door, mend the fence
If the euro collapses, or the treaty is stillborn, Mr Cameron may yet claim that he was right all along. It would certainly make his veto seem less momentous. However, other European countries will not soon forget Britain’s attempt to hold the summit to ransom at a vital moment—and to protect financial services, which many of them blame for the crisis. And the Tory Eurosceptics and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are already at each other’s throats (see article).
At its worst, this might be the start of a process by which Britain falls out of the EU (see Bagehot). Yet it does not have to be—so long as Mr Cameron is prepared to mend fences and align his tactics with a strategy to be part of Europe.
He has made a start by withdrawing his futile threat to block the use of the EU’s buildings and institutions by the 26 members of the new treaty. As power shifts in Europe, there will be more opportunities. Britain can help other non-euro countries who gibe at the new treaty’s strictures as well as euro-zone countries that want to resist protectionism or over-regulation—including Germany. At the very least Mr Cameron should make up with Mrs Merkel, who had previously fought hard to keep the British at the table. A compromise that gives Britain some reassurance about the City and thus lets Mr Cameron return to the table may still be possible. Remember, his recalcitrance at the summit means that the new bulldog Cameron is better equipped to face down the Little Englanders. The question is not whether he can recover Britain’s position, but whether he is ready to do what it takes.
Ultimately, the euro zone faces a similar choice. Its members could strike a grand bargain that deploys the ECB’s balance-sheet and some form of Eurobond in exchange for fiscal integration. The question is not whether they can save the currency, but whether enough of them are prepared to pay the price. This summit suggests not.
from the print edition | LeadersŹródło: economist.com Dec 16th 2011