Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Grand Old Duke of York

The current round of the euro-crisis really does have that feel about it. The Merkozy has marched us up to the top of the hill, and marched us down again. And to what effect? No one is really that sure. Such is the confusion that we have a little difficulty even knowing whether we are up or down, much less halfway up or down.

One of those to join the ranks of the confuseniks is the ever-pertinent Ambrose, who is sort of saying WTF is going on?, even if he does not express it quite in those terms.

No fiscal union, no Eurobonds, no ECB as lender of last resort – yet, he notes. Just the usual blather and a revamped Stability Pact (Fiskalunion). Yawn. Merkel seems to have backed off on demands that budget breaches will be justiciable before the European Court, so the Treaty chatter is mostly Quatsch, bĂȘtises, and eyewash.

He offers more detail in a longer piece headed "Fiskalunion is worst of all worlds for Europe", but it doesn't really say a lot more. It leaves us wondering what all the fuss was about or – if we really are on the brink of disaster – why there isn't more fuss.

And that is the puzzle. If we needed swift, decisive action, we didn't get it. None of Mrs Merkel's proposals - whether enshrined in EU treaties or not - offer any meaningful solution to the crisis at hand, says Ambrose. "They continue to ignore the cancer in the EMU system: the corrosive 30pc currency misalignment between North and South, and the German-Dutch trade surplus".

But these are almost noises off, as the British political chatterati prattle about whether we should have a referendum if there is a treaty, when the rest of us are wondering whether there will be a treaty, what sort of treaty it will be and whether there will still be an EU by the time the "colleagues" decide what is going to be in it.

Never mind playing the violin. This is almost like discussing the menu for the barbecue at the festive burning of Rome, so irrelevant is it to the main agenda.

That this should be the preoccupation, however, speaks volumes for the British attitude to the European Union in some quarters. Totally inwards-looking and obsessive, one can quite see why the epithet "little Englander" was coined and has prevailed. The political classes are quite incapable of seeing beyond their own narrow horizons.

But it may be all to no avail. Merkel and Sarkozy, by keeping an intergovernmental option open, have cleared the way to by-pass the UK if it threatens to obstruct whatever the "colleagues" have devised by way of a solution. A push to a referendum, therefore, could quickly be rendered an irrelevance.

The more substantial point, though, is that if the EU is in an existential crisis and collapse is threatened, Britain stands potentially exposed to a political and economic tsunami. In such a case, a treaty referendum is the least of our concerns. And in any case, even if a referendum was called-for, we are looking at two years distant – at the very least - with much water to flow under the bridge before we get that far.

In between, the most likely outcome of current events is a further deterioration of the economic situation - with fifteen of the seventeen eurozone nations – including France and Germany, facing a credit downgrade. This can hardly be a surprise. As Ambrose says, none of the fundamentals have changed and nothing proposed is likely to address the flaws in the system.

Therefore, the sensible political focus for the UK, one would have thought, would be on devising contingency plans to manage the collapse of the euro, and possibly the break-up of the entire European Union. Further, for those who would wish to hasten the demise of the EU, resources might be best expended on devising systems and arrangements to take over from the EU, in a post-EU world.

Putting all the eggs in the referendum basket, on the other hand, is fraught with danger. One does not have to agree with Jackie Ashley in The Guardian to concede that she has a point. Her view is that the uncertainties of leaving the EU in the short-term are such that the average voter would be terrified at the prospect of leaving the EU entirely, and vote for the status quo.

This raises the question of why one should risk a vote on something where an adverse response is likely to delay our departure, when the natural course of events, aided by work to portray the advantages of withdrawal, is likely to achieve the desired outcome, without the risk of rejection.

For the moment though, the real imperative must be an attempt to find out what is really going on. We may get a better idea of what the Merkozy is proposing, when we see the text of the letter to Van Rompuy on Wednesday, and more still once the European Council meeting is over.

Until then, we are hardly in a position to know whether we are halfway up or down the hill, and have even less idea of where we are going. The volatility is such that, by the middle of next week, we might be in yet another crisis - or an intensification of the existing one.