The Greek crisis shows Europe's weakness

This comment was published in The Independent

16 February 2010

Shame on those now sneering at the European project

The right is forcing the pace in seeking to cast the EU in a negative light

Like the Bullingdon Club on a late-night binge, the Anglo-Saxon club of anti-Europeans is on the rampage, portraying the euro on the brink of collapse. Behind this stands a bigger right-wing agenda aimed at beginning a rollback of European Union construction and integration. Together with the venomous attacks on European citizens working in Britain - now routinely described as "immigrants" with all its Powellite insinuations - the right are forcing the pace in seeking to cast the European Union in a negative light.

It was odd to hear Chris Patten on Today at the weekend offering a soft version of this line. His lament was that Europe was run by second-division leaders and not giants like Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger and he held up John Major as the exemplar of European leadership. Fidelity to old friends is noble but the idea that Sir John, who fumbled Maastricht and appeased Milosevic, is to be admired is a brazen re-writing of history.

But Patten's dismissal of Europe chimes with the new Cameron line that the EU is irrelevant and not of much interest to Britain. This is smarter politics than the sneering contempt for the EU offered up over the years by William Hague or Liam Fox.

But is Patten right? Is Europe now so weakly led that its development hardly matters to Britain? Is the pound outside the Eurozone a saviour for Britain? Is the Greek crisis a harbinger of further rupture in Club Med countries, leading to a break-up of the Eurozone?

Let's take the arguments in turn. The Greek crisis is serious. But it is precisely because the EU has been kept weak that it was allowed to develop. Greece's Conservative government that was defeated last September lied consistently to Brussels about its national accounts, including some dubious derivative trades that earned Goldman Sachs $300m in the high noon of deregulated global Ponzi schemes the City and Wall Street indulged in.

The Conservative EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, turned a blind eye to his political friends in Athens. London has always rejected a role for the EU in internal national economic goverance. Thus Greece continued its clientalist and corrupt distortion of public finances without any intervention. Far from Europe being a superstate, Brussels is now revealed as being without the authority or will to send up distress flares, let alone insist on some link to economic truth.

Will the other Club Med nations follow suit? The smug northern consensus is that the markets will break Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Yet Portugal has a lower deficit than France or the UK and lower unemployment than its neighbour. Spain's central bank has supervisory teams permanently patrolling the corridors of Spanish banks. There are no Northern Rocks, or RBSs let alone Lehman Brothers, on the Iberian Peninsular.

Does Britain's separate currency offer shelter? The pound has been devalued by about 25 per cent in the last 18 months. This has not helped exports. Britain's trade deficit with EU nations rose to £3.7bn in December and imports rose four times faster than exports last year despite the low-value pound. In the past a Labour government that presided over a devaluation bigger than those of 1949 or 1967 would have been crucified. But the consensus that stretches from the post-1997 Treasury to every Tory MP that the pound is good and the euro bad means there is no serious discussion about Britain and the euro.

If Greece or any other country is forced to quit the Eurozone that would mean its debt would become much more costly to service. If goods trading freely in Europe on the basis of a common currency become suddenly cheaper as a result of a devaluation the logical response will be protectionist counter-measures. Germany, with its massive trade surplus, will dominate Europe's financial landscape. The political consequences of a Germany as a hegemonic Weltfinanzmacht (World Financial Power) becoming decoupled from the rest of Europe should worry even the most complacent of British Eurosceptics.

We are all in this together, and the European question is going to become more serious with new doctrines, policies and, in due course, leadership shaping the next stage of EU development. Once again it looks as if Britain will be chirping from the sidelines. An isolationist Tory government would make matters worse. Will the British ostrich ever get its head out of the sands of Dover?