'It will not be the case that the south will get the so-called wealthy states to pay. Because then Europe would fall apart.” Thus spoke Horst Köhler, former German president, finance secretary and IMF head, almost two decades ago.
Köhler’s remarks are worth pondering. A series of multi-billion-euro bail-outs – and more to come – have now planted a north-south political divide at the heart of the European project. Taxpayers in Europe’s north resent underwriting their southern neighbours, while voters in the south are equally frustrated at having austerity imposed upon them from abroad. As has been noted repeatedly, this is the greatest tragedy of this crisis: a project that was meant to bring people together, now risks driving them further apart. Alas, events in the eurozone this autumn could further exacerbate this tension. There are at least five key stand-offs to watch over the next few months:
Greece v Germany: Greece managed narrowly to escape running out of money today by raising almost 4 billion euros in short-term debt. But Athens will face an excruciating autumn. On almost every count, Greece is miles away from meeting its EU-mandated austerity targets, which raises the questionof whether Germany – or the IMF – will pull the plug on the country in October when its next progress report is due.
Though there is still scope for muddling through, almost any outcome will lead to rising political tensions. If Germany sticks to its guns, the popular disillusion in Greece will grow massively. If Berlin gives in, it faces a serious backlash from the country’s public – a majority of which wants to kick Greece out.
Spain v the North: Amid continued problems, Spain could possibly request EU cash as early as September. But the country is simply too big for a Greece-style bail-out, while Madrid would not accept having its economic policies fully decided in Brussels and Berlin. Instead a third way must be found involving less money and softer conditions, probably with heavy and controversial ECB involvement. The North will dislike such an arrangement – particularly cheap ECB money going to Spain – but may give in for fear of worse.
The bail-out funds v national democracy: On September 12, Germany’s constitutional court will rule on whether the eurozone’s permanent bail-out fund – the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – is compatible with the country’s “basic law’, following a host of complaints. Though unlikely, should it strike it down, the markets will go absolutely crazy. Regardless, the ruling will leave a bad taste in Germany and shows how the ESM is becoming an increasingly toxic issue, with southern and northern politicians disagreeing fundamentally on its size and whether it should be given a direct credit line to the ECB.
The Dutch v Europe: September 12 will also see another example of national democracy reasserting itself: the Dutch elections. Geert Wilders, leader of the super-populist PVV, is seeking to turn the campaign into a referendum on Europe, hoping to tap into the Dutch anti-bail-out mood. At the same time, the Dutch socialists – currently leading in the polls – have vowed to resist both the EU fiscal treaty and further transfers of power to the EU without approval in referendums. A divided Dutch parliament and more assertive government will almost certainly make eurozone politics even more complicated.
Germany v France: This autumn will also see negotiations over whether the eurozone will take the next big leap towards an economic union, with an October EU summit tasked with providing a “road map” for more integration. Ideas include a banking union (with a single supervisor and joint backstop) and collective government borrowing in the form of eurobonds. The issues are tremendously complicated, subject to a cobweb of disagreements and will take years to clear away. But importantly, this could widen the gap between Germany and France, with the two disagreeing fundamentally on the order of events. Berlin wants a political union first, meaning greater German control over others’ finances in return for underwriting them – while Paris wants to press ahead with stronger bail-out mechanisms, via the ECB and others, leaving the oversight for later. The Franco-German axis is not about to break, but maintaining it will become increasingly difficult.
So how should Britain respond to all of this? Simple: try to control what it can control and leave the rest behind. The UK is right to seek to buffer up against a potential euro meltdown. It is also right to look for ways to ensure that further eurozone integration – such as a banking union – is not detrimental to Britain or the single market. But the UK government needs to stop giving unwelcome advice on the need to turn the eurozone into a “debt union” or for the ECB to start spraying the Continent with cheap money – both options effectively involving Angela Merkel completely running over her own voters.
The eurozone crisis has unleashed some seriously unpredictable political forces. EU leaders may have to choose between maintaining the euro and maintaining national democracy as we know it. In either case, we have no idea how voters – in the North and South alike – will respond.