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This is about Lisbon, not just the euro

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Paul Mason | 08:22 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Irish debt crisis that looks set to reach a denouement in the next 48 hours is being splashed as a contagion story that poses a threat to the euro.

I think it is about something bigger: the Lisbon Treaty itself and the terms of Franco-German dominance in the pact.

Let's step back and ask how we got here.

In May the eurozone ripped up its no-bailout rules and cobbled together a mechanism to solve the Greek debt crisis. Then there really was a contagion threat, which could even have sunk Britain and Spain.

But as a result of a lot of table banging late at night they agreed a 440bn euro (£374bn) fund to bail out countries who could not raise money on the international markets. With a further 60bn European Union (EU) fund and 250bn from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that put a 750bn backstop on the debt crisis, which has lasted until now.

So why the danger?

As I wrote then, the essence of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) deal is that northern Europe took control of southern Europe. South Europe was supposed to be meeting Maastricht targets on debt and deficit, but could not: so the price of a north-European funded bailout was to be fiscal control from the centre.

The eurozone had always been a monetary pact without enforceable fiscal rules and now the French and Germans would enforce fiscal sovereignty.

But it was easier said than done.

The EFSF mechanism technically breaches the eurozone's rules. It is temporary and runs out in 2013. The original idea for a more permanent mechanism was based on imposing fines on countries that broke the rules. That is, if you are going to have a law, breaking it should mean an automatic penalty.

As it became clear the indebted countries might be reliant on Franco-German funding a lot longer than 2013, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Deauville last month to stitch up a new deal. Instead of fines for countries there would be penalties for investors. And the future governance of Europe would not be enforced like a law - it would be more like the relationship of perpetrators and policemen in certain parts of southern Europe: enforced by negotiation.

In any new arrangement after 2013, "wholesale restructuring of debts" would follow a euro-led bailout of a country. That means investors losing their money - as they did with for example the Argentine debt default. This is what spooked the markets - as they began to believe the "haircut" would be imposed during the current bailout as well.

But there is one other detail of Deauville to remember: Merkel and Sarkozy concluded they would have to enshrine the new arrangement in a change to the Lisbon Treaty. Lisbon II would create an enforceable fiscal government for Europe and impose that quaint old fashioned north European concept on the rest: namely that if you lend money idiotically you can lose some of it. Sarkozy agreed to reopen the treaty in return for Merkel's agreement to withdraw the idea of automatic fines.

What the current euro crisis does is throw into question this whole process. The bond markets are yet again signalling they will respond to any threat of "haircut", i.e. losses by selling the debts of the stricken countries, forcing yet more EU bailouts.

The truth is Angela Merkel cannot sell any further German bailouts of southern Europe to her voters without some significant seizure of economic sovereignty by Germany over the rest. It is not clear if Nicolas Sarkozy can sell anything at all to the French. No government in Europe could currently sell a referendum on Lisbon II to its voters. That's why there is stasis.

Up to now David Cameron has said he will not stand in the way of a treaty change that only affected eurozone members, citing Britain's interest in stabilising the eurozone as a market. Conservative views are divided between those who would use the crisis for a new Lisbon referendum and those who would use the crisis to extract maximum realpolitic advantage on other issues: budget, trade, treaty opt-outs etc.

But the problem is now that Europe's stability has to be founded on a new bargain: southern Europe has to endure austerity for half a decade; northern Europe will get effective sovereignty and the power of sanction over the rest. It is hard to see this new arrangement falling into place except at the other side of a crisis.

And in the process European populations will ask themselves: is this what we originally signed up to?


  • Comment number 1.

    Crikey what a mess!

    Great journalism this in exposing this for the nation, no doubt worthy of front pages and prime slots on the news so we can all engage and contribute to these significant events.

    Hang on a minute...breaking news... Katie price has had another boob job...stop press..

  • Comment number 2.

    Fiscal union or withdrawal from the EU?

    How are Sein Fein playing this one?
    Is this their opportunity to get an all-Ireland parliamentary majority?

    Who will be the first to leave the EU?

  • Comment number 3.

    Ireland is an honorary member of southern Europe I assume but it represents a more theatrical extreme case of the UK. A decade of austerity? Some in the Eurozone are but young democracies and their institutions may not be as resilient as the Nordics. If the EU has any long term value it will seek ways of working together to grow its way out of the crisis and think more long term in financing rather than crisis bail-out. The Eurozone is potentially as strong as its weakest link and the Irish seem to have figured this out. Their possible default is a threat to the whole and so it would seem they are into negotiation. If others adopt a similar approach the Franco German axis will have to re-think the whole approach to recovery and the Euro. The alternative is several successions from the Euro with big devaluations, rescheduling of debt etc. Is this what the founders of the common currency had in mind?

  • Comment number 4.

    Events, dear boy, events.

    This is also what separates the sheep from the goats.

    No, its not time for a cliche but a time for reflection.

    What is the point in high faluting ideas when the reality that underpins our lives lies elsewhere. This is where the European elite in Brussels and Strasbourg has so fundamentally failed. They have been so busy creating structures out of thin air and making pronouncements from the steps of the proverbial town hall that they have forgotten that `it is the economy, stupid' that really matters.

    We are all fast coming to the conclusion that the only real economy in Europe is German and this is what we must seek to emulate and not posh sounding public relations verbiage about free markets which are actually highly leveraged on the taxpayers account. We need muck and brass, muck and brass!

  • Comment number 5.

    But I voted for someone who said:
    * I'd get loads of stuff from the state
    * taxes wouldn't go up
    * I'd get richer all the time
    * I'd get a massive pension

    I didn't bother to add any of it up but the man said he would sort it and I voted him in. Surely it's his responsibility to deliver it now? This isn't my fault. What happened to my boom, baby?

  • Comment number 6.


    The European madness: inherent corruption, feudal power structure and ALWAYS bigger, is typical male behaviour. (Where else is 'enlargement' a given good? No prizes.)

    That the European combination has stopped wars, is manifestly untrue; indeed, it is clearly going to lead to internal rebellions. What is more, it is probably travel and communication that has changed the dynamic - not fusion. In truth, we have no 'control' second Europe for comparison, so all is conjecture.

    Needy men who want more power, glory, jollies, freebies, strutting, speechifying, trappings and 'reach', find Europe appealing. In human-scale terms, it is a nonsense.

    Never have the words: "The centre cannot hold" been more apposite. Take a look at the centre of the European Folly - and weep.

  • Comment number 7.

    The Franco-German dominance extends further in that by bailing out Ireland/Portugal France Germany hope to ameliorate the problem for THEIR banks. If F-G can get the ECB and IMF to socialise the Irish Government debt in a pan-European way and spread the load etc. THEIR banks do not have to take the haircut/restructure. THEIR banks do not have to go cap in hand for government bailout. The nightmare for France is if contagion spreads to Spain where THEIR banks are even more exposed than to Ireland/Portugal debt. This is the reason why, eventually, Greece was dealt with due to German banks being on the hook. The crisis is both in the European project and directly to the Franco-German banking system, so we need to "follow the assets"(or in this case debt). UK will reluctantly stump up because its resident banks are exposed to Irish bank collapse and the collateral damage to a major export market if they do not.

  • Comment number 8.

    Further to #4 Stanilic...

    I would ask who are we making the muck & brass for? Bondholders? Is this the new feudalism? Can we have growth without a plan? Can we have a plan without sorting out the banks and government debt - who would invest in plant(processing muck with & for brass) when taxes are likely to remain high (to pay for the interest and debt) well into the future & off over the horizon. How are we to motivate the populace to work the muck and brass in the interests of disparate bondholders. Until the accountability for this mess is sorted and the reckoning on who will bear the burden laid out clearly (OK, I know it will be us taxapayers in one form or another in the end), I can't see how we can move forward.
    In passing, I suggest far from creating a Tea Party we have a Tea Strike. We should stop buying Twinings tea until they reverse (or Vinny vetoes) the relocation of the North Shields factory to Poland using an EU grant (which we will have contributed to) costing UK jobs - a heinous travesty! Mines not an Earl Grey!

  • Comment number 9.

    The problem is not supranational for the likes of Germany, France and Belgium. According to the BoE Financial Stability Report Chart 2.6 the German banking system's claims on Ireland are almost as large as those it has on Italy, with a hefty exposure to Spain. Belgium and the UK's have hefty exposures to Ireland and France's has large exposures to Italy. Greece looks like a small issue. Like Ireland, when it faced a run on its biggest banks in September 2008, Germany will need to consider its own banking system's state of health when driving its political demands.

    And the UK would be foolish to stand aloof.Its own banking system faces refinancing needs much larger than its neighbours in 2011. It might need all the friends it can muster at that point.

    Real politics will take over. I do accept there are financial limits to everything - personally I think the IMF will need to take control ultimately, enter the Chinese!

  • Comment number 10.

    Check this graphic out

    European banks’ sovereign debt exposure

    We're all in it together...a game of dominos that is!

  • Comment number 11.

    Paul: ".....Europe's stability has to be founded on a new bargain: southern Europe has to endure austerity for half a decade...."

    The German reluctance to support southern Europe financially is understandable, but based upon perceptions of "the truth but not the whole truth". Simplifying somewhat, German economic strength is based upon large scale manufacturing, but the southern economies are largely based upon agriculture and tourism - whose individual components are rather smaller trading units.

    One of the failings of the original Keynesian model was that it failed to account for the imbalance of power between large and small trading units. Large units have the power to "control" markets to protect their incomes in a way small units don't - especially in a recession. This was the rationale behind agricultural subsidies (although the way these have been given have created enormous problems of their own.)

    So Northern Europe has been getting its fruit, veg and holidays on the cheap, whilst money flowing from north to south for property development has pumped up that bubble in the south too, causing huge economic distortions. All this has been made worse by the banks own ability to manufacture money out of nothing.

    If northern Europe walks away from a southern European crisis it helped create, the the EU might as well fragment, because it will no longer be a community. But then everyone will be poorer.

  • Comment number 12.

    8. At 1:13pm on 16 Nov 2010, tonyparksrun wrote:
    In passing, I suggest far from creating a Tea Party we have a Tea Strike. We should stop buying Twinings tea until they reverse (or Vinny vetoes) the relocation of the North Shields factory to Poland using an EU grant (which we will have contributed to) costing UK jobs - a heinous travesty! Mines not an Earl Grey!

    When I suggested this a few days ago I was moderated out!

  • Comment number 13.

    An Eu that was created to end european wars has ended up as the mechanism by which the germans run everything anyway without firing a shot. Ironic?

    will cameron give the germans a free hand in europe?

  • Comment number 14.

    They are all in it together.

    That is the problem with the politicians, the bureaucrats and the bankers - all on the same gravy train and all afraid to tell it like it is out of fear of not being offered that part-time well paying position on the board of the bank, the QUANGO or something lucrative involving sausage quotas in Brussels.

    Greece, Eire, all our countries now need some heroes to step forward and start telling it like it is. Let the banks go bust, lock up some bankers in the process and see what happens.

    Will the World stop turning? Will the Sun not rise in the morning? OK, maybe a country like Eire may suddenly find itself unable to buy food, oil, etc, but it will be self-sufficient in its own black stuff. Eire could stop supplying the World with Guinness - I am sure the World would blink first.

    Of course, if Eire began to began to go hungry again then it could invoke sympathy from the US. I am sure Oprah and other Irish-Americans - isn't every American an Irish-American? - would be more than happy to drop food supplies of twinkies and mountain dew into Dublin.

    Heck, they could even get Bono to have a funding-raising concert for, um, Ireland.

    Excuse my cynicism. I actually hope that things will get far messier for the EU project before things get better. I say this because only by things getting much worse is there any chance, as far as I can see, of the status quo being broken. Hopefully then, something far better and beneficial for the people of Europe, and not just for the grey suits and mandarins, will emerge.

  • Comment number 15.

    #12 Kit Green
    8. At 1:13pm on 16 Nov 2010, tonyparksrun wrote:
    In passing, I suggest far from creating a Tea Party we have a Tea Strike....

    When I suggested this a few days ago I was moderated out!
    I shall await the tap, tap, tap, in the night then (hoping it's not Jayne Mansfield's lobster)

  • Comment number 16.

    8. tonyparksrun

    Egad, sir! They are moving the tea factory to Poland? I suppose we can now expect the milk and the tea to arrive in the UK on the same vessel. I don't think a Tea Strike would be sufficient, I would suggest a full declaration of cake requiring that a defunct Harrier is used to drop plain madiera down the factory chimney. I think that will take the biscuit. I suppose Earl Grey will now become Count Szary: doesn't have the same ring to it somehow. How can you be posh in Polish other than use cavalry to charge tanks.

    As for the muck and brass I use that as an expression to convey the virtues of real industry. Metal making, bashing and shaping: what we used to do before we were told we had to be bankers. In feudal times the gentry wanted to make their estates more profitable so they established markets and exploited their natural resources. We have to do the same: it is the only way. This is going to have to be a bootstrap job as there is nothing else left.

  • Comment number 17.

    And another thing.

    Enough of the problems outside of our shores - what about the problems going on within? Inflation is running away from us - the cost of living for every single Brit in this country is going up.

    Food, heating, diesel & petrol, clothing are rising almost weekly in price but everyone in the Media seems happy to allow Merrvyn King and the BOE get away with their ludicrous claim that there is no inflation and hence no need to raise interest rates.

    Out there in the real country there are real people - the elderly on fixed-incomes, the poor - who are suffering. No one is challenging King. No one is bringing Cameron, Clegg, Osbourne or Cable - what a waste he has turned out to be in power - to task over this.

    The King policy looks as failed as the Bernanke policy - both will end in disaster and then we will have to go and try something different. Inflation is a real problem here. Right now but both seem intent on trying to convince us that deflation is the issue.

    How much longer will they get away with this con?

  • Comment number 18.

    17 tawse57

    This is the frustration we all share but we have to be realistic, it is going to take two years to measure the coalition. This might be the only two years of coalition but sadly things take time.

    I totally agree that King's policy has failed and increasingly the Bank of England looks like someone unhealthily interested in their own fundament.

    I have given up political philosophy for the interim as none of it seems to fit at the moment; all that matters is the economy and getting that moving - somehow. The arguments over the optimum methodology can come later, let's get everyone some work to do first!

  • Comment number 19.

    Is this the beginning of an United States of Europe I wonder?

  • Comment number 20.

    stan @ 18

    I have given up political philosophy for the interim as none of it seems to fit at the moment; all that matters is the economy and getting that moving - somehow. The arguments over the optimum methodology can come later, let's get everyone some work to do first!

    Mind you, considering the State is bailing out the banks at a colossal expense, I remember a particular political/economic philosopher saying that 'the state is nothing but a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoise'. At the time I thought the State was more independent from the economy. How wrong I was.

  • Comment number 21.

    Good to see the BBC News Channel is following all of this.... fifteen minutes of Hello style rubbish is still going strong at this moment......

  • Comment number 22.

    Thank you, Gordon Brown for not immersing us in this Euro mess but why am I still paying through the nose for a weekend in Nice?

  • Comment number 23.

    20 dceilar

    I wouldn't mind if the state was the management committee for the bourgeoisie as at least someone would be responsible and capable of making a decision. As it stands there is nobody but thee and me and this vortex of debt that looks like it is going to swallow us whole.

    Somebody must do something, I am rather limited in my capacities but I am looking about to see what can be done for fear that people will go hungry. We only have each other in the end.

  • Comment number 24.

    The question is which story will Newsnight lead with?

    Prince William getting married next year or the eurozone crisis round 2.

    I am not even going to speculate about the other 'news' offerings, but I still hold out a little hope for the NN editorial team.

    The wedding should bring in a few punters to UK plc anyway.. perhaps we should have one every year.

    good post at #14 tawse by the way. I agree we do need some form of cathartic crisis, the sooner the better. We are already at the point where keeping the patient alive with an ever more complicated system of invasive tubes and wires is outweighed by the longer term view on the sustainability and value or accepting its fate with dignity.

  • Comment number 25.

    Herman Van Rompuy, the EU President for the hundreds of millions who have not a clue who he is, just said that a failure of the Euro could bring down the European Union. Interesting insight into what is being said behind the closed doors of the power-brokers in Europe's capitals.

    The problem that Van Rumpy does not get - probably will never get - is that the vast majority of people in Europe do not care. If the Euro and the European Union went tomorrow most cannot see how they will be worse off - they probably would not be worse off.

    This just shows how distant from the People the grey suits in Brussels have become.

    The loss of the Euro and a break-up of the European Union would be bad for them, for their egoes, their expense accounts and their pensions.

    I have watched some of these people close up and have seen how the ego takes over - being fawned over by compliant journalists (Who else is allowed near them?), worshipped by personal assistants and PR people, photographed, chauffeured, always a table at the best restaurants.

    What I am now seeing is a complete disconnect between these folk, and I include our own politicians and the likes of the BOE in here, with how the People are feeling.

    They are completely mis-reading the mood.

    They are locked on a course of pumping vast sums into propping up failed banks because propping up these banks is in their interest and not in the interests of the European People. The People are not stupid, the People are getting angry and the Van Rumpys and his kind in London, Berlin, Paris and other EU capitals cannot even see it.

    It will be their undoing.

  • Comment number 26.

    Rumpy Pumpy....your time has arrived....loser...

  • Comment number 27.

    The Corporate Nazi ( welfare state for the stock market parasites ) leaning European politicians in all member states are angling for the excuse to introduce an EU wide Carbon Tax based on their Climate Change Scam in order that they can keep bailing out the Banks to preserve their virtual " Fourth Reich ".

  • Comment number 28.

    Surely the point in conclusion is that the populations did not sign up to Lisbon, they were not allowed. The 'populations' may have had more sense. Perhaps if the politicians had had the mandate they would have been able to move more positively with a 'mandate'. The politicians have a political challenge in blame avoidance where they alone must take the rap. Here ends the development of Europe from 'top down'?

  • Comment number 29.

    brossen99: Cheer up. At least Godwin's law still works.

  • Comment number 30.

    Without a solution to the debt crisis, the EU is at risk of collapse.

    Without repairing the EuroLand mechanism, there is political stalemate between the debtor and lender countries in the ECB.

    Without rapid and firm action, there is a serious risk of a wave of soverign debt defaults sweeping up from southern europe and engulfing the entire financial system - that would take UK PLC under the waves too.

    In the UK the government is composed of an impossibly broad coalition of EuroPhiles and EuroPhobes - so this leaves the UK government unable to come down on one side of the fence or the other about the future of Europe because this would require Cameron to vote for something in Europe, but this would cross the "Red Line" he has in place - not to agree to changes without a referendum.

    I think we now need the referendum to force the question on our role in Europe: this stalemate is totally irresponsible and the UK needs to decide whether we are mad enough to think we can survive outside the EU on our own, or if we should stop this will we/won't we attitude and commit to the single market and single currency.

    What do the europhobes think will happen if the whole thing collapses? The very first thing will be a heavy run on the pound and vast speculation against the British economy due to the risk from our public and private debt mountains, rapidly followed by another banking crisis, sovereign debt defauilt and meltdown of UK PLC.

    I can't see the other countries in the EU simply giving up - the Germans, French and Benelux are likely to reform the club with a smaller membership, but with huge resentment against us - they will close ranks and impose trade sanctions to protect their own interests.

    Cameron needs to take on the europhobes and squeeze them out of the Tory Party into UKIP where they belong - not that I think this will solve anything in the long run, but it will at least end the "do nothing" attitude of the current government.


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