Friday 16 December 2011

Europe isolated from UK

By co-incidence I was in Belgium and near Maastricht, the birthplace of the Euro, last weekend. This was a good opportunity to assess the aftermath of David Cameron’s decision to veto the proposed European treaty.

The UK media was pretty hysterical about it whether they were pro- or anti-, and they had been vocal about the treaty beforehand. In this relatively rich part of Europe people seemed much less concerned. There was some concern about the state of the Euro and the financial situation and disappointment that the UK had withdrawn from the discussions - but a resigned acceptance that the UK was always different. A much calmer reaction (which perhaps shows that the posturing in the European Parliament was just that, posturing) than in the UK.

I think Cameron had little choice. I think it was unfortunate because it’s always a shame to leave a discussion unresolved, especially because the topic (solving the Euro crisis) was pretty important. But Cameron was stuck: he had no support from his party (the largest party in Parliament) to compromise much; he had no support from other countries who were too scared of the Franco-German axis and he was caught in a disagreement between France and Germany. Had he put off a decision, he would have been criticised at home and more importantly would have been blamed for the eventual collapse of the talks and the weakness in the Euro. Now, the UK has stood aside so if anything goes wrong it’s the fault of the Euro countries – primarily France and Germany. There’s another point in his favour, spelt out by one of his most ardent critics: he played it straight. He didn’t stoop to the Euro sceptics stance of kicking Europe when it was down; he gave everyone warning of what was important to him and he followed through.

The short term winner of the summit was Sarkozy, who needed a win because of his Presidential election next year. He wanted a weak agreement without the EU being able to bind countries, unlike Merkel who wanted a strong formal agreement. The trouble for him is that it is clear, and increasingly clear, that the summit has not helped solve the problem of the Euro and that there will have to be more discussions. Even worse, and perhaps unsurprisingly, more and more countries are stepping away from what they agreed to. The summit may have been portrayed as the UK vs the rest, but the UK will soon be one of many who can’t agree to the plan. This will weaken Sarkozy’s position and strengthen Merkel’s.

As far as UK politics is concerned, Cameron’s position has been strengthened. Miliband had little useful to say and Clegg looked silly. There’s no doubt the Lib-Dems will be disappointed but fundamentally the coalition is about sorting out the UK’s financial position and it is unlikely (not least because of their weakness in the opinion polls) that the Lib-Dems will withdraw. It is more likely that the stupid part of the Conservatives will push for an aggressive stance in the next phase of European discussions. Even though this could damage the coalition, reduce confidence in the UK’s ability to sort out its deficit and therefore harm the UK’s economic situation, and disrupt sorting out the Euro problem – also damaging the UK’s situation. Hopefully a combination of common sense and party discipline will prevail.

As for the Euro: it really is a mess. There are only two solutions, full fiscal union with central budgetary control and Germany picking up the pieces (which in the long term might be unsustainable politically) or the exit or devaluation of the weaker nations. This would be very disruptive in the short term but better in the long term because the Euro could start again. From this side of the Channel it is unclear why the Euro elite are so wedded to a costly project – but they are, and they will do their best to keep the Euro going whatever the cost. The trouble is, it’s a cost to us as well as them.

So for those thinking the summit was bad:
- Most of the sensible politicians in Europe still want the UK engaged. They know we can’t help being straightforward, practical and outward looking. They value that. We will only be on the fringe of decision making if we choose to be.
- The package agreed at the summit will probably fizzle out, we won’t get too much of the blame and discussions will continue.

But for those thinking the result of the summit was a good thing, a couple of warnings:
- in the past we have done well by being slightly disconnected from Europe; we did not suffer from staying out of the euro as so many suggested we would. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. Things don’t always repeat themselves.
- The UK is benefitting from a very low interest rate because people still believe we are sorting out the deficit. But our ability to do so is harmed by the struggling European economy. It wouldn’t take much for people to take a hard look at our credit rating and think we too have problems so increasing our borrowing rate. Rather unpleasantly the Bank of France today suggested the UK should lose its AAA status before France. I don’t think we will but we mightn’t be far behind.

It is therefore in our interest to be good Europeans for a bit so we can help them solve the Euro problem –as long as we aren’t pushed too far, as we were last time.

We are, after all, all in this together.