Category Archives: Europe
On both sides of the Atlantic there is a dangerous disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. That is why, I suspect, such unlikely characters as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have confounded all expectations and caused us to believe that, in the current febrile atmosphere, virtually anything in politics can happen. The same disconnect can be said of the unelected and unaccountable gnomes of Brussels. At the moment we are cynically digesting the latest piece of hyperbole concerning the coming EU referendum and await with trepidation the next shocking apocalyptic revelation.
Genocide and war, they tell us, is a possible consequence if we make the wrong decision, as is a five-million rush to these crowded shores to swell our already ballooning numbers. The ten plagues of Egypt must surely be in the pipeline as the next possible item on the agenda. Which side will jump in with its own 21st century version of these horrors to scare the living daylights out of us is anybody’s guess. Is the public buying any of this nonsense? I suspect not.
Forecasts are notoriously unreliable. We spend billions worldwide trying to predict the weather and still we get it wrong. In the seventies, National Geographic featured scientists forecasting another ice age. In the 1920s, economists were convinced that a return to the gold standard would cure our economic woes. It made them worse. When Mrs Thatcher proposed her remedies, 364 leading economists signed a letter to say they would not work. They did. When the three party leaders, the entirety of the establishment and almost all the chattering classes said we should join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the ERM, they were wrong again. Many of the same group of know-alls also wanted us sign up to the euro and predicted doom if we did not. How lucky for us that we declined to listen to them. “We would be able to do our business in Afghanistan without loss of life,” said the defence minister. Nearly 500 died. 13,000 would come to us from Eastern Europe, said Labour. Over 1,000,000 did. When George Osborne proposed austerity, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, rushed in saying he was “playing with fire.” We ended up with the highest growth rate in the western world and over 2 million new jobs created. The governor of the Bank of England said it would be necessary to put up interest rates when employment fell below 7%. It was not.
So much for the “experts” knowing what will happen. Why should we take any of their forecast seriously?
Referendums may seem like a good idea and, doubtless, they have their place in a working democracy, but they have a way of polarising society in a manner that general elections do not. Perhaps it is because they concern huge and generational issues, the results of which cannot be unpicked five years down the line when you realise you got it wrong. Whatever the reason, they seem to generate a level of bitterness unique to themselves. Remember the nastiness of some of the SNP zealots in 2014? Had I been a unionist at that time, I certainly would have thought it prudent to keep my head down and definitely not put a poster in my Glasgow flat window.
The truth is that whatever is decided on 23rd June, the show will go on and the good ship Great Britain Plc. will plough on much as it did throughout all those centuries before the European Union was even heard of.
At this moment in history it cannot be denied that the EU is going through a rough patch. The euro may yet implode; even moneybags Germany has not enough to save beleaguered Spain, never mind troubled Italy if the markets call time on them. The single currency was certainly ill-conceived and has massive problems which have yet to be addressed. As for the Schengen Zone – that great leap of idealism – it poses a huge security risk in this volatile, post-9/11 world and it could be dynamite, literally. The EU’s policies are driving extremism in Europe leading to the rise of neo-Fascist parties. In terms of job creation, the EU is currently a disaster area and its growth rates is abysmal (on both of these counts we are an exception). A good case, you might argue for the Brexit. Why cling to a loser?
At the same time, you might equally argue that to cut ourselves loose might be to put ourselves on the wrong side of history. As well as staying at peace, a continent united is obviously going to be able to make its voice heard loudly in the world and its trade deals carry enormous clout.
Europe’s whole history since Rome fell apart has been to find a way of getting back together again. Various of its more powerful states have sought to do it under their own hegemony, but that has been unacceptable to the rest. Europe’s glory, and you have to say achievement, today is that it has found a way of doing so largely by consent rather than by coercion. Yet unfortunately in many important areas it has messed up and its democratic credentials are seriously flawed.
Perhaps a vote to leave might provide the system with the jolt it needs to make it acceptable, not just to us but to others who do not wish to see their identity subsumed in a monolithic super state which wishes to homogenise them all into a blandness and make all Europe seem the same. If Europe is to succeed a way must be found to preserve its charming idiosyncrasies as well as a meaningful level of sovereignty for its nation states.
The Europe which we put our signature to almost two generations ago is not the Europe we are being asked to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Then it was all about trade, except that is wasn’t.
The European Common Market began its life as something of a confidence trick. The political classes knew from the very beginning that it was a political project designed to relegate the nation states of Europe to a subservient role. They had concluded that they were nothing but trouble and were the biggest single cause of its terrible wars.
Just the same they knew that the peoples of Europe were, almost without exception, lovers of the lands which bore them and felt a deep attachment to the cultures which had developed within their borders. Talk at that stage of a European Union might have frightened the horses and run the risk of it being still-born. So they had to tread carefully. A mighty trading bloc though? Well, who could object to that? We all want to improve our standard of living.
Thus was born the Common Market. Europe had always been strong on markets and the use of that word was perfectly designed to allay suspicions. They were content to play the long game. Stage one was to lock the lot in lucrative trade arrangements, recognising that nations doing the bulk of their business with each other could not, thereafter, easily break free.
Actually, the whole business had begun even before the Treaty of Rome with the creation of the Iron and Steel Community of France, Germany and the Benelux countries. The idea there was that you couldn’t go charging off with a secret re-armament programme, as Hitlerite Germany had done, if all your iron and steel came from a common source.
Europe had had enough of war and a system, so they reasoned, had to be created whereby future outbreaks would be next to impossible. Although there was nothing wrong about that, hadn’t the setting up of NATO nine years earlier achieved that? As Europe grew richer – helped in no small part by the generosity of Uncle Sam with his Marshall Aid programme – it became safe to move on to stage two of the project and chuck overboard that boring old, and grudgingly conceded title, Common Market. Now it became the European Community.
Still no feathers were ruffled, but the more discerning of us could see where the project was headed. Not long afterwards came the great European Union and all was plain to see. With that came the burgundy coloured passports that let us all know – in case naively, a few of us nursed any continuing illusions of national independence – that we were now part of a burgeoning superstate. The Euro was meant to be the final brick in the wall.
The reason all the member states, with the exception of Britain, had been so accepting of the project was that they believed that the nation state, through its inability to protect them from the ravages of war, had been discredited. Only Britain’s island status had saved it from occupation. It therefore had no reason to lose faith in the nation. It stood proud of its institutions and the fact that its Industrial Revolution had changed the face of humanity. Also its exalted former position as the world’s greatest empire made it harder for it to become just another brick in the wall.
But now we must decide: do we cut loose and regain that independence which has been lost, or do we stick with it and with the confidence of a major player work within the system to bring it to the democratic accountability which we Anglo Saxons insist on? We are far from being alone in wishing this.
The world is increasingly moving in favour of what may be called the Anglosphere with our language and business models reigning supreme. I do not doubt that Britain PLC could cut a swathe in the world, but do we want a mighty power on our doorstep which we are unable to influence?
Nevertheless, worries abound concerning immigration, which apart from putting all our public services under strain, has the power to change the character of our country forever. Much of the fury and distrust of the political class which drives the Trump presidential campaign in America is at work here in Britain. They never asked us, say the doubters, about immigration and they never asked us if we were willing to cede sovereignty. They seem only interested in looking after themselves. And as to what Europe was really all about that, well that too, was founded on a lie.
Although the EU was a work of the utmost deceit, we are where we are and we should not necessarily quit because of that. Perhaps the best reason to stay is a geopolitical one. Out of the EU, however brilliantly we handle our affairs, with a population of 64 million ours might end up being a forlorn voice crying in the wilderness.
It is not an easy choice to make. But then who ever said life was easy?
Poor, benighted Greece. Yes, it lived beyond its means, encouraged by greedy bankers all too willing to see it mortgage its future. And, yes, the Greek way of doing things seems decidedly un-Germanic.
What an unedifying carry-on that scrambled, weekend marathon was, called to decide Greece’s fate and preserve the integrity of the euro. A two days’ notice summons went out to the nine heads of government not in the euro who were told to attend that Sunday. Then they were told to stand down. They didn’t need a grand council of all twenty-eight EU members after all. Talk about an omnishambles and the Grand Old Duke of York.
It was always meant to be that, once enrolled, you were as locked in as all fifty states of the American union are to the dollar. But it turns out that that this is not the case. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague once made the mistake of saying that belonging to the euro was like being in a burning building in which all the exit doors are locked. Really! Wolfgang Schäuble, the hard-line German finance minister, had actually drawn up a plan to show Greece the exit door if it did not comply with EU terms.
There are many truths to this latter day Greek tragedy. Ironic it is that it should happen to Greece of all countries, which wrote the scripts of the very first tragedies concerning the foibles of human nature. Just as it was beginning to make progress under austerity – though there remained much to do, as the latest Brussels proposals made clear – a crazy, economically illiterate cabal of schoolboy lefties gained power. (They once believed that Communism was the answer.) Their silly promises of an end to austerity were seized on by a weary electorate. But how could they work that particular piece of economic sophistry? It was like asking someone to turn base metal into gold.
We are today in a situation in which a mere eleven million Greeks labour under a mountain of debt equal to what our sixty-four million people spend on the NHS in a year and a half. It was, and is, insupportable.
Once again the banks have a case to answer. It is a truism that a lender has as much of a responsibility as the borrower. What is abundantly clear is that the lenders did not exercise due diligence. They knew the Greek character and that once they enjoyed the security of the euro with its low borrowing costs would, likely as not, go on a spending spree and end up living high on the hog, enjoying a standard of living way beyond what their productivity justified.
But while the good times rolled the banks looked the other way and that fatally flawed conception – a currency (monetary) union without a fiscal and banking one was able to bumble along… just. But it was never going to avoid the attention of the speculators on the world’s money markets when the good times ended, as they always do. And boy, did they end! When the banks were exposed as having lent to millions of mainly Americans (but, yes, us too) on mortgages that they knew were likely to go belly-up, they then artfully – and I believe criminally – wrapped up those toxic, sub-prime debts in packages mixed in with sound debts and unloaded them to unsuspecting other banks all around the world. The consequence was that every bank viewed every other bank with suspicion and would not lend to them (an absolutely necessary requirement under the capitalist system) for fear that the other bank had saddled itself with lashings of toxic debt and may actually be insolvent.
When the giant Lehman Brothers bank went down and the Federal Reserve refused to save it, shock waves went round the world. It was a seismic event in that cloistered world of banking which everywhere shut down on lending. It sent the system into a tail spin. Thus we became familiar with a new term: the credit crunch.
Returning to Greece, the bailiffs of the big boys, (the Troika’s IMF, ECB (European Central Bank) and the European Commission) have effectively moved in. Proud, humiliated Greece is being told it must provide collateral for the monies advanced. It must sell off all it can of its public sector along with whatever else can raise hard cash. The next thing we’ll be hearing is that they’ve slapped a ‘For Sale’ notice on the Parthenon. What has been needed throughout, but which has been totally lacking, is a generosity of spirit. If the 520 million people of Europe cannot handle 11 million, admittedly errant, citizens, then something is seriously wrong.
The fact is it is perfectly possible to be a member of the European family (i.e. the EU) – after all, there are nine of us who are not using the euro – without being beholden and tied to that flawed currency. It is equally possible that if one day that currency proves itself by correcting its inbuilt defects and then goes on to become the world’s reserve currency, replacing the dollar, we may ourselves rethink our position and apply to join. But that day is a long way off.
Meantime what of Greece and its mountain of unrepayable debt? 92% of the monies advanced to Greece do not go to helping that country get back on its feet, but to servicing its debts. As a deadline for repayment looms, Greece is handed monies which it must immediately pay back. Thus, while for book-keeping purposes, the situation seems under control it is anything but. It is an altogether hopeless situation. In essence it’s no different from that of a person taking up ever more credit cards to pay off a loan from his bank.
Europe, and in particular Germany, should remember that when the Americans put together that incredibly generous Marshall Aid programme to rescue them from an even more dire situation than present day Greece’s at the end of World War II, there was a total forgiveness of debt. Without that there would have been no recovery of Europe for decades. It remains my hope where little Greece is concerned that our great continent will show a generosity of spirit similar to what the Americans showed with their Marshall Aid programme and declare a forgiveness of debt. Without it Greece has no hope.
A tragic consequence of the present situation which few have thought about is that we are in danger of losing, through neglect and vandalism, much of that peerless heritage we so like to visit and wonder at. The treasures of European antiquity, of which the Greeks are custodians, are already suffering terribly from thefts and shocking neglect. What with the destruction going on in Aleppo, the oldest inhabited city on earth, at Palmyra, Babylon and indeed throughout the Middle East – the very cradle of civilisation – the world will wake up one day and realise that it wasn’t just present day humans who paid the price, but the surviving evidence of what its distant ancestors achieved down the ages.
What are we to make of the tragedy which is unfolding across the beautiful waters of the Aegean? Here in high summer when they should be enjoying the fruits of their glorious holiday season they are locked in a battle for their very survival with the giants of north Europe and their banking systems.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Greece has already paid a terrible price for its profligacy and easy living on the back of a strong currency of which it was never qualified to be part. Their economy has had been bludgeoned by the money men into shrinking by a horrendous 25% and their youth unemployment exceeds 60%.
Right at the beginning, the books appealing for entry into the euro were cooked, helped in no small part by that ‘Great Vampire Squid’, Goldman Sachs. But while the Germans and the rest knew very well how the Greeks went about their business and that they were not a suitable candidate, political Europe had to take precedence over economic Europe and they let them in.
With other weaker economies such those of the Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italians allowed to join the party, the Germans ended up with a currency much less strong than their old Deutschmark would have been and that made it much easier for them to flog their BMWs and the like. Borrowing rates for these weaker economies became much lower than ever they would have been had they been using their own currencies so, of course, they were happy to buy north Europe’s products as well as treat themselves to a much higher standard of living than their economic performances warranted.
All was well throughout the goods times that preceded the financial crash of 2008. That ill-conceived monetary union – which lacked the also essential fiscal union – of the euro could bumble along so long as there were no headwinds. But, boy, it wasn’t so much headwinds that arrived but rather a hurricane. The Credit Crunch brought the Western world’s economies to the brink of meltdown.
Today the weakest of the dominoes stands in imminent danger of falling, with the risk that others will follow. And the country that benefited most during the good times, Germany, insists on playing hardball. It needs to show a bit of humility – as well as compassion – and realise that it must take its share of the blame for the plight that Greece finds itself in today.
Despite its own banks, along with French and others, being exposed to a possible Greek default of alarming proportions, it knows that a Greek economy that cannot grow because of acute austerity will never ever be able to pay off its debts. It needs relief and restructuring. Long before this present crisis broke they acknowledged this fact. But what now are the Troika’s proposals? Even deeper austerity. Can we be surprised that a government that was elected on a mandate to end austerity has thrown up its hands and said enough?
If Greece on Sunday, in its touching desire to remain at the heart of the European family – but also out of sheer terror at the thought of the consequences of being cast adrift – votes to accept the Troika’s diktats, it faces never-ending recession. If the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they will stay in the EU and possibly even the single currency, but mayhem could follow with a complete national shutdown. Could Brussels stand by and see this happen?
Actually the majority of economists believe that this seemingly bonkers course would serve it best (Argentina went down a similar road). Economists say there would be six months of hell, or possibly longer, but then a future would open up for Greece. With holiday costs cut to half their present level, we would cast aside that old warning to ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. Greece would become the continent’s playground as never before. Poor, suffering Hellas, the first of all Europe’s civilisations, would start to smile again.
I was taken aback recently to learn of a serious proposal to set up a school for Gays. While a firm supporter of not stigmatising minorities – as a child of an unmarried mother at a time such things were scandalous, I know just what that means – I felt that this was simply a bridge too far. In fact I believe it could be counter-productive, harming the very people it was designed to protect; a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. Humans across the world belong to a single family. If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream and create an environment in which they circulate for substantial and formative periods only among people of their own preferences you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream. We know the aims of Gays in making this proposal are laudable; they wish to experience and benefit from an education free from the slings and arrows of a taunting minority. But the answer, I fear, is not to remove them from the orbit of the bullies but to bear down and educate bullies into accepting that it is they – the bully – not their victim, who is the problem. It was never more clear to me than during my army service in Northern Ireland that if people are ghettoed from their fellows they will not relate to them and, as a consequence, would be capable of doing terrible things. And there, job discrimination was total – in schools, churches, policing, pubs, town halls, housing and just about anything else you could think of. The first question that any employer asked of you was, “are you Catholic or Protestant?” We saw in blood where that led.
Social attitudes can be turned full circle. We know this from things we have already achieved. Do you remember that ‘Carry On’ film in which a partying group of young medics came out and piled into an open-topped sports car and roared off? The noisy, raucous group were all the worse for drink. We thought, at the time, it very funny and so did the producer. Neither he nor we would think that now. In fact we are appalled that we ever thought it so. In similar vein was the ubiquitous glamorising of smoking on the silver screen. Also, look at our previous indifference to the disabled; we never bothered to put wheelchair access into anything. Then, just let a landlord – as happened when I first lived and worked in London – try putting in his window a sign reading ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. All hell would break loose. Women’s prospects have improved immeasurably from what they were and so have peoples’ of other races. I could go on. Indeed, some might argue that in today’s Britain your life chances might be improved if you were not of Caucasian stock. Racial, religious, gender and disabled abuse have all joined the bonfire of the unacceptable, as has hate language. Also that pernicious culture of being able to touch women up and, worse, and get away with it is thankfully at an end, though I do wonder if we are right in pursuing old men to the grave. But I acknowledge that justice must trump everything and you could argue that they were lucky to have got away with it for as long as they did before justice finally caught up with them. Finally, while we’re at it, let’s remember that poor unmarried mother whose family once turfed her out. That was not a million miles removed from stoning her.
My point in highlighting all this is to show that Europe in times past – often with us as flag-bearer – has had very backward attitudes. In addition to this we have been exceptionally cruel, physically as well as emotionally. It therefore ill behoves us, as we make progress, to lambast the Muslim world for its tardiness. The whole world hardly needs to take lessons from us in this area. There was a time, which lasted for seven hundred years, when Muslim Spain led the world in virtually all the sciences. While it was rescuing and translating almost all the Greek classics, we were transporting ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and despoiling their prosperous, peaceable lands in Palestine. Our ‘great’ King Richard (The Lionheart) – who spoke no English and spent only a few months out of his eleven-year reign in England, bankrupting it in the process – wrought such cruelty on Crusade that even today Muslim mothers will quieten their little ones by saying “shhh… King Richard is coming”. He once decapitated 5,000 prisoners on the beach at Acre. Strange it is then that of all our many illustrious monarchs he is the only one honoured with a statue outside Parliament. An unfathomable people we are for making such a judgement. And in terms of cruelty, no Muslim country that I am aware of ever matched our grisly hanging, drawing and quartering routine, nor Bloody Mary’s 300+ burnings at the stake in a five year period, nor Vlad the Impailer’s bestial cruelties, nor the horrors of the 30 Years’ War.
It is very true that we have today a terrible problem – to put it mildly – with certain crazy Muslim men, but we have had our share of crazy men, even if they have not specialised in running wild on the streets with butchers’ knives and Kalashnikovs. The sheer magnitude and level of depraved brutality which our own continent has exhibited throughout the recent century should humble us considerably in our dealings with the rest of humanity. It certainly does not qualify us to hand out advice as though it is coming from on high, and as though we approach the world’s problems with clean hands. However, it is my belief that it is this very barbarism which has made Europe determined to do things differently in the future.
It may not seem so but we are moving into a kinder, more caring world. Not only have we such institutions now as the International Criminal Court, whereby previously unchecked rulers can be held to account, but we show concern and provide help when manmade or natural catastrophe overwhelms one of our brother countries. This is new. Every country now acknowledges that it has a duty to work towards some sort of a welfare state for its people. This, too, is new. Making war without United Nations authorisation is an option becoming increasingly difficult for sovereign states.
Social networking, Skype, emails and the instant availability of facts and information – as well as the next day delivery of goods on eBay and Amazon – makes ours a more joined-up world than it has ever been. And we are only at the beginning. Within three generations, virtually the entire human race will be able to communicate with each other in a universal language. What incredible good fortune that it happens to be our own which will be that medium – and what business opportunities that should present us with if we have the wit to seize them!
Meantime we must hold our nerve as we navigate through what undoubtedly will be treacherous waters, finding ways of containing and then rolling back the bone-headed fanatics who seek excitement on foreign battlefields as well as at home in the misplaced belief that their warped vision is the future. Yet we must do so without compromising our essential liberties and bring our Muslim brothers and sisters on board. Their thinking, young people, in particular, want all the same things we have, including democracy. We must find ways of getting them to prevail over their rogue elements and bring them on board too.
The long awaited rescue of Europe, along with its badly put together single currency, gets under way now that the German chancellor no longer has the distraction of an election to worry about.
Angela Merkel, the pastor’s daughter from the former Communist east, will get down to a lot of serious business. Her mission, no less, is to save the continent from imploding. In doing this she will seek help from her new best friend, David Cameron. Many of us here at home have gone off him, particularly the women, but he makes a good impression abroad. Even neo socialist Barack Obama gets on well with the ‘posh boy’ from Chipping Norton. He is mannerly, brimming with self-confidence and knows how to talk the talk. What else would one expect from an Old Etonian, that breed of Brits who once believed that they were born to rule. Incredibly, it seems that even in 21st century Britain they still have grounds to believe this.
Angela Merkel aspires to a business-minded Europe: caring but frugal; hard working, but at ease with itself. The last thing she wants is a Europe in tatters. Whether or not it was wise to create the euro in the form they did, we have to accept it is a fact of life. It certainly has benefitted German exporters, whose massive sales to the rest of Europe is part of the reason they are in such debt. If Germany were to go back to the deutschmark its exports would be so incredibly expensive that their export dependent economy would be in danger of crashing. So save the euro they must. But they must also save it for another reason: if it collapses, or even fragments, the whole European Project will as likely as not come off the rails and Germany will take the blame. For the third time in a century, people will say Germany has left Europe in ruins.
The simple truth is that the political and financial establishment have too much at stake to allow their dream project to collapse. The consequences would be seismic and coming at this time, when recovery seems underway, it would be unthinkable. Only Germany has the financial clout to save the Euro.
But Fritz does not want to open up his coffers – especially to what he perceives as lazy and corrupt southerners – but neither does he want to become Europe’s baddy all over again. He will drive a hard bargain which will involve some pretty nasty medicine when he takes responsibility for all that toxic debt and he will seek a powerful, respectable ally to share the howls of protest with. France is no longer willing to be that ally. She seems not to understand the scale of the problem. Perhaps that’s because she is herself part of the problem. That leaves only one ally available to Germany and it is not even in the euro. That ally is us.
Germany views Britain as a business-minded country, like herself, and it makes sense, in her view, to get Britain onside in her chancellor’s drive for reform because Cameron wants reform too. But his reform is not just in monetary matters. As it happens, Germany, as well as others, doesn’t much like a lot of what is coming out of Brussels so he could find himself pushing at an open door.
I am convinced Germany will do all that it can, within reason, to give Cameron what he needs from Europe rather than lose a necessary and valued ally. Merkel is said to be ready to discuss anything, so long as Cameron does not ask her to chose between Britain and Europe. She knows that if he cannot repatriate powers then Britain is a goner from the EU. That would be a body blow to the whole European Project and it would set a most unwelcome precedent. It would send shock waves throughout Europe and indeed the world.
Even before her re-election, when she had to be careful, she began her courtship of David Cameron. That weekend soiree to her country home in which Samantha and the kids were invited, was in my view, extraordinary. It spoke volumes. She has never asked any other political leader to visit her at home, never mind bringing the whole family. So even if the women on Dave’s home patch have abandoned him in droves, Angela most certainly has not. She thinks he’s lovely – ‘My naughty nephew’, she calls him, and can’t wait to team up with him in sorting out Europe. In all the photo shoots of recent times she makes a point of standing next to him, and the body language is very telling.
All in all, it causes me to think that we are in the early stages of seeing a new, powerful axis being formed… a resurgent Britain alongside its fellow Teutonic power Germany. That axis will be an outward-looking one keen to harness the enormous potential of half a billion Europeans, but moving to direct their energies to the world beyond Europe. Britain, for its part, is already travelling very successfully down that road and with its vast connections worldwide, its goodwill from its former empire and its universal language, it is peculiarly well placed to profit from it all.
Uncle Sam worries about the threat posed by the emergent Eastern economies – we all do – but he does not worry about Europe. Rather he wants to team up with it in a North Atlantic trade partnership. Such a partnership is a very real prospect; it will hugely benefit all of us and give the whole world a tremendous fillip.
I do not subscribe to the view that this century will necessarily be the Asian century. Yes, it will do well, but all the countries concerned have tremendous structural and political problems which the West overcame long ago. Endemic corruption and a lack of trustworthy institutions will also act as a break. Human Rights issues will plague them because justice, as we know it, does not exist. They have got a lot of work to do and are not in a position to give their undivided attention to coining a buck, as the West is. For a start, they are going to have to take better care of their people and that means creating something of a welfare state – and we know how ruinously expensive that will be.
As for Cameron, he has a great opportunity, but if he does not put forward some female friendly policies and quickly, he won’t be there after the election to take advantage.
It seems clear to me that a major link-up between the two top Teutonic powers of Europe – Britain and Germany – along with lesser like-minded powers to the north and east is taking place. The tectonic plates of Europe are on the move in a way that may prove irreversible. This will certainly be viewed with horror in Paris.
That invitation from Angela Merkel for David Cameron to come and visit her at her home north of Berlin a few weeks ago and to bring his wife and children has, I believe, great implications. She even wheeled out her hermit husband for the weekend soiree.
It had all the characteristics of a love-in. No other European leader has had such an invitation or been accorded such warmth and hospitality. It is known that the pastor’s daughter holds Cameron in the highest esteem – perhaps that Eton grooming helps – and it will have been reinforced, I’m sure, by the shy, but charming, Sam Cam – and her equally delightful children. Such personal chemistry and bonhomie really does matter. The invite, in my opinion, speaks volumes.
But equally importantly her whole philosophy of life gels with that of the foreign leader she is said to have once described as her “naughty, but charming, nephew”. Naughty because, at a time of huge difficulty for her beloved Euro Project, he has rocked the boat by demanding fundamental changes to the way the EU goes about its business.
It is not as if she disagrees with much of what he committed to put before the British people in a 2017 Referendum, should he retain power, but because it’s complicated and will take a lot of what she does not have: time. As it happens, most of her fellow countrymen agree with David Cameron. They, too, dislike much of what is coming out of Brussels and would like to see things done differently. But she wants to keep her eye on the Euro ball, whose solution – if there is one – is also complicated. She feels she cannot afford the distraction of a major renegotiation of EU treaties at this time. There is also the added factor that she is up for re-election in September and has all that circus ballyhoo to worry about. Cool and detached, as Angela famously is, she is in danger of becoming stressed and Davy boy, right now, isn’t helping.
What with France’s weak and hopelessly left-leaning ‘leader’ – distracted as he is with woman problems and who cannot see the necessity for tough measures in France – she is at her wits’ end. The Franco-German axis, which has been the engine of the EU since its beginning, is unravelling.
France, under Hollande, seems destined to be the flag-bearer of a southern rim of EU countries which will put up with no more belt-tightening. Merkel admires little Ireland’s heroic acceptance of the need to pay off its debts, but she is fast losing patience with the other PIGS (Portugal, Greece and Spain, that is). She is full of praise for Cameron’s recognition that sound money and balancing the books is central to everything. Also his open trading outlook and market philosophy equates exactly with her own. She has no truck with spending your way out of debt. She sees David Cameron as an economic soul mate.
Germany herself has still not shaken off the terrible legacy of WWII and she is unwilling to take the lead in Europe on her own for fear of cries of a Fourth Reich being hurled about. She feels she has to have a partner who is ‘respectable’ and can front up everything diplomatically while she can make the running economically. France, for fifty years, has been that partner. Yet now the dice have rolled in another direction and an alignment of Teutonic powers seems in the offing. Is this a good thing? It certainly will not seem so in Paris, which will be outraged at its relegation and see the hand of perfidious Albion at work all over again. As virtually the creator of the EU, which she saw primarily as a means of controlling German ambitions, she has seen her dominance slide inexorably. That is why, originally, she was so keen to keep ‘interfering’ Britain out. But this proved impossible in the end, especially when you had a British leader, in Edward Heath, who was prepared to sell the pass and demean himself as a wretched supplicant, to get in.
Now, more and more countries have been allowed to join the original Club of Six – chiefly at the instigation of Britain – and France’s position has weakened with each new entrant. Most infuriating of all, they seem to want to use English in preference to French in the corridors of Brussels power! Once you could not get a job anywhere – even a lowly one – if you were not fluent in French, but now the point had been reached in which the Brussels power brokers actually had the audacity to appoint a Union foreign minister who spoke no other language but English. That was the ultimate insult.
I have no doubt that Europe has the capability to become the dominant power in the world if only it can get its act together. Its GDP is already way ahead of Uncle Sam’s and it will only widen. In terms of any numbers you care to look at, it is perfectly within its reach to see off competition from the east for the rest of this century. I look to the day when Russia itself comes knocking at the EU door. It is essentially a European country.
Europe’s cultural dominance is already unassailable: its music; its art; its literature; its universities; its history; its multiplicity of matchless ancient cities. Even its science is on a par with the US. I see no reason for us to be downcast. All things come to an end, including this wretched recession.
So will David Cameron get his deal, which will persuade enough Britons to back him in the referendum? I think he will. Angela will see to that, one way or another, and she will be assisted by Britain’s many other friends in Europe. France will be incandescent. Germany does not wish to lose a country which she sees as pivotal to Europe’s future; one that has played so crucial a role in its past. America will be delighted, for she will feel that in the coming difficult world, where after 500 years a resurgent east threatens to displace a weary west, a half a billion people, all speaking its own language – as a back up – and mentored by his closest ally and friend, will be there to stiffen its own resolve. And that same Europe may well be a Europe fashioned after the Anglo Saxon model – one very much to the US liking. Rest assured, too, that Uncle Sam himself is far from finished. He will come bouncing back, I am sure, with all that energy we are so familiar with. Together with Europe, it will be a bloc more than capable of looking after itself in a fast-changing world.
Banks are not to be trusted. That is the shocking message the Troika of the European Central Bank, the EU and the IMF have sent out when they seized up to 60 per cent of the deposits of their wealthier customers in tiny Cyprus.
Governments have attempted to get themselves out of holes in years past by raising money in all sorts of unlikely places, some of them truly bizarre. But never, until now, had they felt themselves entitled to raid peoples’ bank accounts and plunder them. That island state of 1.2m people may only represent 0.02% of Euroland’s GDP, but the action of its powerful masters to curb Cypriot excesses has sent shock waves not just across Europe, but the entire world. The reason is simple: if you can’t lodge your money in a bank account without feeling that it is safe, where on earth can you put it? Under the bed, perhaps, or in a biscuit tin? For all the derisory interest savings have attracted in recent years, that might not seem such a bad idea. The trouble is that almost no one has a pay packet anymore – it has to go straight into the bank – and we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the convenience of the hole in the wall that we can no longer contemplate anything else.
What has happened to Cyprus, however, should make all of us take stock. It has breached what hitherto has been held as a sacred principal: that you cannot help yourself to something which has been placed in your safekeeping.
People have believed that in an uncertain world their humble bank deposit was at least safe from predators. Just the same, what is to be done with a bank which has got itself into a mess? Is it fair that people – i.e. taxpayers – who did not even sign up to that bank should be compelled to ride to its rescue? Those taxpayers are even more innocent (if you want to use that emotive term) than the lowly deposit holders who did sign up.
What is clear is that we can never again allow ourselves to be held to ransom as we were with the 2008 rescue of British Banks. We have suffered as a result of that rescue for coming on five years now and there is no end in sight to the misery that it has inflicted. High Street banks – the ones we need most to trust implicitly – must be ring fenced against the sometimes crazy risk takers in their investment arms.
In view of the banking industry’s unique capacity to bring the whole system down – even discrediting capitalism itself – they must all be closely monitored. Had this been done it is arguable the catastrophe which has overwhelmed us could have been avoided, or at least mitigated. In addition to all this we must enact laws that permit us to send bankers to jail, where reckless conduct and dodgy practices puts all our livelihoods at risk. Amazingly, there was no law in place that could hold ‘Fred the Shred’, to account: he broke no laws. This must change.
What really sticks in the public craw is that not a single banker is behind bars. Even members of the political class including peers, have ended up sporting prison blue. Their crimes, by comparison with the enormity of what the bankers did and are still doing, is of no consequence. Soon, no doubt, those numbers will be swelled by overzealous newspaper hacks and policemen who have had the temerity to keep them in the picture, even where no money has changed hands. Everybody – ministers included – it seems, can be jailed except ‘fat cat’ bankers. But even before consideration is given to criminalising certain banking activities, the Libor manipulation was an actionable crime. Why then is there no move to bring those fraudsters to justice? Their scams involved tens of billions of pounds worldwide. That question is doubtless answered by recently released figures which showed that access to Downing Street by bankers was of an order of ten times greater than that of anyone else – captains of industry and their like. Meantime the bonus culture continues on its lucrative way rubbing salt into our wounds and insulting us. These ‘gentlemen’ really are laughing all the way to the bank.
It has to be said that the Germans were unfairly treated by the hot-headed Greek Cypriots when they lampooned them as Nazis. The Germans had not wished for deposits to be seized from small depositors: that was a decision by their own Cypriot ruling class. They were fearful of upsetting all that hot money – much of it illegally acquired in Russia and stashed in Cypriot banks. It now seems that a benchmark has been set that only big investors and that, regrettably – since not all are crooks – is how it should be. If you have big holdings you should have the sense to see that when banks are offering returns out of kilter with banks generally there is likely to be a catch somewhere. If still you are prepared to take that risk, then so be it. You cannot look to others to save you from your own folly. Also you should not expect careful Fritz, who does pay his taxes and beavers away in a cold climate, along with other diligent north Europeans, to bail you out. At least the so called PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) have the inestimable luxury and consolation of making a living under the Mediterranean sun. It tells you everything you need to know – that whereas Germans over the last two decades have voted themselves a 20% pay rise, the French have voted 90%.
Apart from anything else it was an affront to north European taxpayers that they should be expected to protect the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs and the like and that a Euro country was being used to launder money. But you could say much the same about Luxembourg except that with more rigorous stewardship its banks have not gone belly up.
As for the future of the Euro itself, on which our own recovery is so heavily dependent, the storm clouds refuse to go away. This is because of the disparities between the economies of the north and south and the huge differences in competitiveness between them. It is so great that it has built up debt levels in the Club Med countries that are unsustainable. My belief is that the Euro will survive, but the weaker members, which never qualified for entry in the first place, will be let go. If only those rules of entry had been applied, so much of the pain currently being felt could have been avoided. But, as is so often the case, politics triumphed over sound money and we are all left with the consequences.
It is likely that I’m going to ruffle a few feathers here, but before I do I would like to say sincerely that I hope my readers have enjoyed their Christmas. The good news is that there is more celebration to come as New Year looms.
None of us can say whether there will be more good news as the year progresses, however. We know there is unpleasant belt-tightening up ahead. But will our sacrifices start to pay off? I believe they will. We, unlike Uncle Sam, are pressing most of the right buttons, though more on growth is necessary. What we have to do is hold our nerve on shrinking the state’s share of GDP.
An economy cannot take off if the state grabs too much. The great imponderable, apart from said Uncle Sam’s actions – or inactions, which might push him over the fiscal cliff with who knows what consequences for us all – is Europe. Will its terrible economic travails rain seriously on our, hopefully, improving parade? Again, no one can say.
Europe has been sticking its nose in our affairs for a very long time now. It started with the Romans; then it was the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; then the Vikings; and then the Normans (who weren’t actually French at all, but a gang of settled down Vikings). It ended there – at least where foreign occupation was concerned. After that it was our turn; the boot was on the other foot. Indeed, we have been sticking our nose in their affairs now for almost a thousand years – much strengthened, I have to admit, by this mongrel-mixing that we had to endure – and most effective our interference has been.
It has been our cardinal aim never to allow a single dominant country to conquer and overawe the rest, and so present us with an accumulation of power to which, notwithstanding our island status, we would have no answer. Many times we came close to disaster. Philip of Spain – with his Armada – almost overwhelmed us. Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, nearly pulled it off but Churchill’s famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, did for the Sun King and smashed his hopes at Blenheim in Austria. Then came the terrible Napoleon; but Herculean efforts – aided by our burgeoning Industrial Revolution – spread over twenty years, which almost bankrupted us, finally brought him to ruin at Waterloo.
For a hundred years after no power on earth could threaten our supremacy and we went on to build the greatest empire known to man. But nothing lasts forever. A powerful rival in the form of the Kaiser’s Germany came up on us and the accumulated wealth of two hundred years and a bloodletting on a scale never before experienced had to be deployed to frustrate his hopes. Twenty-one years later, what was left of that once incredible wealth, plus more blood, was expended to crush Germany’s revanchist ambitions once and for all. And that is where we are today. We have no more treasure to deploy and we will not send our young men to their doom anymore in such numbers. Luckily, neither will any of the others. All of us have had enough; hence the European Union.
We all wish to prosper in a continent of harmony. We wish to concentrate our energies on getting richer as well as fairer and more compassionate. And as with Japan, the appetite for large-scale war has been successfully eradicated. So far so good.
We on this island, with some understandable difficulty, have come to accept that we cannot any longer play the world’s diva. We are, as a consequence, prepared to join forces with our European neighbours to resurrect Europe’s power and prosperity in the world which it foolishly threw away. But this is conditional on this great union being fully democratic, truly accountable and non intrusive in sensitive areas best handled at home. That is not what we see. This octopus which operates out of Brussels seeks to spread it tentacles into every nook and cranny of our national life. Its servants run a gravy train of quite stupendous generosity and corruption seems to be endemic. For eighteen years its auditors have refused to sign off its accounts. And the worst of it all is that we seem unable to control it. A reckoning is overdue.
Proud nations cannot be dictated to in matters which properly should be decided at national level. In this take on the Union’s shortcomings, we are not alone. We have natural allies in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and, most of all, moneybags Germany. They are desperate for us to stay. Our problem is that with our frustration we allow ourselves to flounce off, with all the terrible risks attendant on being out of the loop.
Outside of the Union, we cannot hope to control which direction it moves in. With such an accumulation of population, wealth and power, its development could be inimical to our interests; and it could even end up threatening us. As the most successful, internationally, of all the European powers, we must have confidence to know that our voice will be heard. Things cannot go on as they are. We have, for instance, finally brought sense to the Common Fisheries Policy which was decimating our fish stocks. Forward now to the Common Agricultural Policy which so harms the poor nations of the world and keeps food prices at home higher than they need be. Forward also with repatriating those many powers which should never have left these shores.
I glory in the diversity of our continent and am confident it will never go away. Italy will always be Italy and France, France. If I mix with the boisterous crowd wearing lederhosen at the Munich Beer Festival, they look (lederhosen excepted) just like me. Our church-driven culture down the centuries has made us – despite our fascinating differences – one civilisation with a single European culture and we cannot, indeed must not, marginalise ourselves and walk away into the sunset. And how gratifying it should be to us that the multilingual family of nations we are fashioning our future with have looked to our language to be their language of choice in order to make our latter day tower of Babel function smoothly. What an advantage that gives us.
So my plea is this: have confidence and believe in yourself. Just as through your earth-shattering Industrial Revolution you touched the face of humanity and left an indelible mark, go out and do the same in Europe. Only please, please don’t be a ‘Little Englander’. It doesn’t become you.
The euro crisis rolls on like a train crash in slow motion.
The fact is, you cannot bend economics to your will. The forces which say you cannot do this are almost as immutable as the laws of gravity. Yet that is what the founding fathers of the euro set out to do.
They sought to bind nations with wildly disparate national traits, and equally disparate levels of competitiveness, into one whole. But they did it for political reasons not economic.
It might have worked if all involved had applied the original, sensible rules of entry and submitted their annual budgets to a Brussels power of veto, but they did not.
A monetary union not backed by a fiscal one is actually a no brainer. It cannot work. Even those American founding fathers of nearly 250 years ago understood this.
The success of the American union had a lot to do with the template drawn from a single gene pool with a single historical experience, put in place by the original thirteen colonies who decreed a single language for all.
Now ‘cruel necessity’ – as Cromwell is said to have described the decision to cut off the king’s head – is pushing Europe to cut off the head of the errant Greek state and force it back to the Drachma, Europe’s oldest currency. It is also going to force those who remain within the single currency to give up forever sole control of their countries’ spending policies.
Having done that, then you might at last have a system which actually worked. Within that system would undoubtedly develop a super strong currency with the potential to displace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
It all hangs on what the Greeks vote for at the forthcoming election. Despite all the serious pain they are going through a surprising number of them (over 70%) still want to stay in the euro. But, being the hot-headed Greeks that they are, they cannot help but wear their pain on their sleeves.
If this shows itself by a massive protest vote for the party which promises to bucket a lot of austerity promises – as seems likely – then Greece’s days as a euro member are numbered.
The young and inexperienced party leader in question has convinced himself that the Germans, right now, need Greece more than the Greeks need the Germans. The logic of his argument is that the loss of Greece will begin the unravelling of the euro and quite possibly the whole ‘European Project’. He will simply refuse to implement austerity and defy the Germans and north Europeans to do their worst. He’s convinced they will blink first. I fear he and his nation are in for a terrible shock.
It has to be said that no one has benefited more from the euro than the Germans.
If they have huge reserves of savings that is because for a decade they have been marketing their products in a hugely (for them) undervalued currency. Their former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, has admitted – albeit belatedly – that at the time the political elite dared not ask the German people if they would surrender their beloved deutschmark in favour of the new currency because they knew that they would get a big fat nein.
Yet if the euro were to break up, their deutschmark would be back again – only this time with a vengeance; it would become so expensive that few could afford to buy their products. Exports would plummet.
So yes, the Germans are terrified that a Greek exit will set off an unstoppable chain reaction causing the weaker southern economies to drop out, threatening to destroy the whole single currency. But the Germans are equally terrified at seeing their hard earned savings and pensions going down a bottomless ‘Club Med’ plughole and an endless future of propping up lame duck economies.
So now the previously unthinkable is being touted in Berlin and the other chancelleries of Europe: Greece can go if it will not comply with its undertakings. It will serve as a salutary lesson to other possible backsliders, say some. Provided they do not show similar defiance as Greece, then I believe that Fritz will give the European Central Bank the powers it needs to act as the lender of last resort like the American Federal Reserve or the Bank of England.
Both for narrow self-interest and deep psychological reasons Germany does not wish the European Project to fail, much less be blamed for its failure. It wants desperately to be seen as a good European and lay forever the ghosts of its troubled past. So my own belief is that Germany will do all in it power to hold the eurozone together.
IIf the markets go on to attack the other weaker economies once Greece has gone, who knows where it will all end. Even German savings may not be enough to save the euro, so big are the debts of Italy and Spain, the 7th and 9th largest economies in the world.
George Soros, the man who bet against Britain staying in the ERM in 1992 and won a billion pounds in the process, says the euro train has three months before it hits the buffers. While he is not always right, we should worry. He is 60% of the time.
It is my firm belief, however, that the euro, in one form or another, will survive. And as strange – even weird – as it may seem, given present circumstances, there are still many countries waiting in the wings to join such as Poland, the Baltic states, Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia and even perhaps Sweden and Denmark.
Had the original rules of entry been adhered to then none of the present PIIGS would have qualified to join in the first place and this nightmare would never have happened. For that, Germany must take its share of the blame; it does no good for it to get on its high horse over-much.
But a reformed euro, even if it has shed a whole swath of weaker members, may yet be something to behold. It’s been a long time in Europe since anyone has been able to boast of sound money. If it did not entail so great a loss of sovereignty, it might be a door that we ourselves might one day find ourselves greatly tempted to knock on.