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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

For UK politics the eurozone crisis will bring the deluge | Vernon Bogdanor

Only the gold standard and the winter of discontent have caused similar convulsions in Britain's 20th century history

The eurozone crisis is now entering its final phase. This week European leaders – the council president, the commission president, the central bank president and the head of the eurozone finance ministers – published proposals for banking union involving the mutualisation of debt. José Manuel Barroso, the commission president, said this is "a defining moment for European integration". But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, immediately declared that Europe cannot have banking union without political union, since "liability and control have to be in balance".

The pooling of debt requires, therefore, the pooling of sovereignty, with a European finance minister empowered to reject the budgets of member states if they do not conform to eurozone guidelines. Both supporters of the euro, such as Jacques Delors, and opponents, such as the British MP Bill Cash, predicted this at the time of the Maastricht agreement in 1991. But all this, even if it proves acceptable, will take time. The markets, however, operate rapidly and time is one commodity in short supply.

The European leaders' report spells out that "banking union" means decisions on fundamental matters of economic policy previously in the hands of member states will henceforth be in the hands of a eurozone executive.

That will not be acceptable, as Merkel has implied, unless the executive is democratically accountable. She has proposed that in future the president of the European council be directly elected. That is unlikely to happen for some time. But a genuine union would still mean that a member state could be outvoted on its budgetary policy – the centre-left in France, for example, would have to accept that it could be outvoted by the centre-right majority in the other eurozone countries. That is even more unlikely.

There is a second way in which the eurozone might be saved. Fixed currencies, and perhaps monetary unions, can work when one country is prepared to act as a hegemon, accepting responsibility for the working of the system. That was the role of Britain in the pre-1914 gold standard, and the US under the Bretton Woods arrangements until the early 1970s. Between the wars, by contrast, there was no hegemonic power prepared to take responsibility for the gold standard, Britain being too weak and the US unwilling. That was one main reason for its collapse in the 1930s.

Today, of course, Germany is the hegemonic power. But it is using that power to push Europe deeper into recession, so hampering economic growth and competitiveness in the more vulnerable eurozone members – a self-defeating policy. Instead Germany should lower its taxes and raise wages so that other member states find it easier to export to it; and sponsor a fiscal boost for the eurozone, a European Marshall plan. That is unlikely to be done on a sufficient scale while Merkel remains chancellor; and unlikely even if the rival SPD wins next year's federal elections in Germany. In any case, German taxpayers do not want to be hegemons. Survey evidence indicates that nearly 80% want Greece to leave the euro.

The position of the eurozone, therefore, is more akin to that of the inter-war gold standard than the pre-1914 or Bretton Woods systems. And the likelihood is that Greece, and possibly other states, will soon leave the eurozone. This will, initially at least, deepen the recession in the eurozone and Britain. But in Britain, with its coalition government – one part pro-Europe, the other eurosceptic – the political consequences are likely to be as profound as the economic.

Europe has, after all, been highly sensitive politically ever since Edward Heath took Britain into the European Community in 1973, since it raises fundamental issues of sovereignty and national identity. In the 70s it split Labour, leading to the formation of the breakaway SDP. In the 90s, John Major's government was almost destroyed when it sought to ratify Maastricht.

In the 2010 election, the Ukip vote of nearly a million was by far the highest ever for a minor party in Britain. In 21 constituencies the Ukip vote was higher than the Labour or Liberal Democrat majority. If all Ukip voters had supported the Conservatives, a eurosceptic party, David Cameron would have won an overall majority.

If countries leave the eurozone, this will undermine confidence in the British political establishment. It is true that the establishment was divided on the euro. But even those opposed to it subconsciously assumed that European integration was an ongoing process somehow in tune with the logic of history. That assumption is now being destroyed.

It is difficult to think of issues of comparable magnitude in Britain's 20th century history. But in 1931 the crisis of austerity caused by the gold standard led to the collapse of the second Labour government, which could not agree on whether to cut unemployment benefit. The result was the formation of a national government and a realignment of parties.

When asked what would happen if Britain left the gold standard, Philip Snowden, the Labour chancellor, threw up his hands and said "the deluge". However, the national government that succeeded Labour faced a naval mutiny at Invergordon in protest at wage cuts, and was forced off gold. "No one told us we could do that," lamented Sidney Webb, a Labour ex-minister; the pound floated, Britain in the 1930s came to enjoy economic growth of nearly 4% per annum, and by 1934 most of the cuts had been restored.

A second comparable occasion was the winter of discontent of 1978-9. Until then, the great and the good had said that government could only be effective through a social contract with the trade unions. Anyone who tried to govern without that consent would cause confrontation such as had destroyed the Heath government in 1974.

That belief was shattered by the widespread public sector strikes, which resulted in a walkout in Great Ormond Street Children's' Hospital, cancer patients being sent home from hospital in Birmingham, and the dead in Liverpool being buried at sea. The British people found themselves peering into an abyss in which civic order and decency had broken down. The winter of discontent realigned politics and signified the end of old Labour. The party was to remain in opposition for another 18 years.

No one can predict what convulsions the eurozone crisis will cause. But its political ramifications are likely to prove both massive and fundamental.

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Asil Nadir trial: 'Thatcher asked to intervene by Turkish president'

Margaret Thatcher was asked by the Turkish president to intervene to save Polly Peck from financial ruin at the insistence of Asil Nadir, the Old Bailey has heard

Turkey's president asked Margaret Thatcher to save Asil Nadir's Polly Peck company from financial ruin, claiming it was the victim of a Greek-Cypriot plot, the Old Bailey has heard.

The 71-year-old tycoon, who denies stealing £150m from the collapsed business, said he flew to Turkey for a private meeting with Turgut Özal shortly after the company was put into administration. Jurors were shown a letter sent by then-president Özal to Downing Street in 1990 claiming that Nadir was the victim of a campaign to undermine Polly Peck International (PPI) by Greek Cypriots.

He added it was part of an attempt to destabilise Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus, the court heard.

Nadir, who described himself as a "visionary", said: "I saw that to my mind I felt it was a political problem and I needed political help. I approached the then president [and] went and had a long meeting with him."

The letter from Özal to Thatcher said: "Let no undue harm be done to a company that has been a useful bond between Turkey and the United Kingdom in their economic and commercial relations."

A second note was sent 16 days later by Turkey's finance minister to then foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, again asking the government to help save the business from failure.

He wrote: "We are examining what support Turkey can give to PPI plc at this time and would be grateful if Her Majesty's government could assist by making arrangements for PPI plc's banks to hold the situation steady in the meantime."

However, Hurd wrote back with an ultimatum calling for immediate repayment of £100m or "everything was over", the court heard.

Nadir said he blamed bankers, lawyers and advisers for allowing the company to collapse because they were "all there for themselves".

During his second day of evidence at the trial, he also revealed that he never agreed to call in administrators, but was overruled by his directors.

Describing his relationship with the board as "cordial and close" he added: "It had tremendous ideas. It was guided, if I may say, by a visionary."

The prosecution claims Nadir caused PPI's collapse by siphoning off £150m between 1987 and 1990, which he denies.

On Tuesday the court heard he fled Britain before his original trial in 1993 because he believed there was "zero chance" of a fair hearing. The trial continues. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Endy Zemenides: Is There a Europe to Be Saved?

Europe's economic crisis has exposed not only the institutional weaknesses of the EU, but also its lack of solidarity.


Greek president to fly economy class to Brussels

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Microsoft's headquarters in Greece firebombed by gunmen

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Merkel rebuffs pleas for debt action on summit eve

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Second minister resigns

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EU's changing faces raise doubts for future

FILE- This is a Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 file photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, right, as they shake hands after a news conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany. Often these days, the first order of business at European Union summits is not the continent's dreadful financial crisis. It's getting to know the people around the table. The group of national leaders that will meet this week in Brussels is a different crew from the one that met in October 2009, when the crisis in Europe first erupted with the news that Greece was in deep difficulty. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer, File)Often these days, the first order of business at European Union summits isn't the continent's dreadful financial crisis.


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Greece on the fence over bailout renegotiation

The renowned economics professor Jannis Stournaras faces a Herculean task as Greece's new finance minister. In Greece, he has to implement reforms; abroad, he has to renegotiate the terms of a non-negotiable bailout.


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Press Watch, June 27

The appointment of economics professor and technocrat Yiannis Stournaras as finance minister dominated headlines in the Athens press. Reports indicated that the new “economy tsar”, as the finance minister is known in Greece, was approved by all three coalition partners – Premier Antonis Samaras, Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos and Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis.


Microsoft's Greek offices attacked by armed arsonists

• Software firm's Athens headquarters badly damaged
• Italian statisticians stage sit-in pay protest
• Greek restaurant workers hold 24-hour strike

Microsoft's Greek headquarters were attacked by arsonists and government statisticians in Italy staged a sit-in pay protest as anti-austerity demonstrations continued to sweep the eurozone.

Microsoft's Athens offices were seriously damaged after armed arsonists drove a stolen truck through the entrance in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and then set fire to it. The office, where more than 100 people work, will be shut for the day.

"It was very lucky that no personnel were in the building at the time," said a police source. "We've had drive-by attacks but nothing like this. In style it is unprecedented."

The ground floor of the US software giant's office suffered heavy damage, which the fire brigade estimated about €60,000.

Arson attacks against banks, foreign firms and local politicians have become more frequent in Greece in recent years amid public anger against the government's harsh austerity policies. Police said it was too early to say who was behind the latest attack. In February, a small bomb was left on an empty subway train in Athens, which a far-left group fighting the austerity measures claimed responsibility for.

In Italy, the protest by number crunchers delayed the release of Italian business morale data, as some 42 statisticians, researchers and computer technicians from ISTAT, Italy's national statistics office, stormed the room where the data are normally handed out, and held a labour union meeting.

Francesca Taratamella, who works in the national accounting department, said staff were protesting against the stats office's failure to award promotions to those who were entitled to them. She said she and her colleagues had been given extra work and responsibilities without any promotion or increase in wages.

"More in general, we are here to lament the freeze on new hires, on salary increases and on promotions … in the public sector," she told Market News International.

Italian prime minister Mario Monti's popularity has waned as he is implements painful austerity measures.

The staff protest at ISTAT meant the business confidence figures for June were published half an hour later than scheduled. When they were finally released, they showed a surprise improvement in morale in June, with the index rising to 88.9 from 86.6 in May.

Back in Greece, restaurant workers called a 24-hour strike for Wednesday to protest against wage cuts and other austerity measures imposed by the government. The strike comes in one of the key months for tourism, the country's biggest industry.

"Employers are blatantly using the avalanche of measures, which are crushing the human and social rights of workers, to violently demand submission to their demands," the Panhellenic Federation of Catering and Tourist Industry Employees said on its website. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Greece: New government hit by fresh resignation, deputy minister quits

San Francisco Chronicle

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Eurozone crisis live: Merkel to address German parliament

German chancellor has reportedly ruled out eurobonds for 'as long as I live'
European stock markets open higher, Spanish and Italian yields flat

8.10am: European stock markets have opened higher:

• The FTSE 100 index in London is up 25 points at 5472, a 0.5% gain
• Germany's Dax and France's CAC have both risen 0.4%
• Spain's Ibex has climbed 0.8%
• Italy's FTSE MiB is up 0.7%

Spanish and Italian ten-year government bond yields are flat at 6.885% and 6.19% respectively.

7.53am: Ian Traynor, our Europe editor, reports ahead of today's Merkel-Hollande meeting in Paris:

Chancellor Angela Merkel goes to Paris on Wednesday to try to strike a Franco-German deal with President François Hollande amid deep-seated differences at what has been described as Europe's defining moment.

With the two key EU countries split for the first time in 30 months of single currency and sovereign debt crisis, José Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission laid bare the high stakes in play at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday as well as the high frictions between Germany and France.

Merkel's first visit to the Élysée Palace under its new occupant has been hastily arranged and comes on the eve of what is being billed as a crucial Brussels summit which, apart from the immediate financial dilemmas, is to wrestle with a radical blueprint aimed at turning the 17 countries of the eurozone into a fully-fledged political federation within a decade.

"We must articulate the vision of where Europe must go, and a concrete path for how to get there," warned Barroso. But he was unsure "whether the urgency of this is fully understood in all the capitals of the EU".

Since his election last month, France's socialist leader has quickly emerged as the most formidable challenger to German formulas for Europe's salvation after two years of Berlin largely dictating the EU response to the crisis.

Merkel is feeling bruised, having just withstood two unusual attempts by fellow leaders to ambush her and get Berlin to hand over its credit cards to write off what they see as other countries' profligacy.

In Mexico last week at the G20 and then in Rome at two bad-tempered summits in recent days, the Americans and the British – in cahoots with the leaders of France, Spain and Italy – sought to press Merkel into bankrolling fiscal stimulus and bank recapitalisation policies that would cut the vulnerable eurozone countries' cost of borrowing.

The pressure on Merkel may have backfired and reinforced German resistance to the ideas. The view in Berlin is that Hollande will have to back down amid the relative weakness of the French economy.

7.51am: EU president Herman Van Rompuy published the leaked report for a path towards deeper economic and monetary union yesterday. Elisabeth Afseth, fixed income analyst at Investec, says:

The timeframe for achieving this is a decade, which is ambitious given the lack of agreement after well over two years of dealing with the crisis. Van Rompuy (in collaboration with ECB President Mario Draghi, EU Commission President Jose Barroso and the leader of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker), sets out broad plans for further integration of fiscal policy as well as banking regulation, maintaining national decision making, but with the overriding control moving to the EU level.

It proposes upper limits on national budgets (in line with the fiscal compact) and moving towards joint bond issuance. The plan will be discussed at the European leaders' summit tomorrow and Friday, I expect there might be some general agreement in the direction of need for further integration, but the plan includes a lot of measures that Germany has rejected firmly in the recent past and it is unlikely it will change its tone much.

7.21am: Good morning and welcome back to our rolling coverage of the eurozone debt crisis and world economy.

Expectations for the EU summit, which starts tomorrow, are getting lower by the day.

Angela Merkel's comments today when she speaks to the German parliament will be closely scrutinised, after she reportedly ruled out the idea of jointly guaranteed eurozone debt for "as long as I live" at a closed meeting with her coalition partners yesterday. Later today the chancellor is due to meet French president François Hollande, her first visit to the Élysée Palace since the Socialist leader was elected.

Gary Jenkins of Swordfish Research said:

If she really did say that then it is difficult to see how this week's summit can be anything other than a disaster and it may well be that the eurozone is heading into the abyss. Meanwhile it was reported that Mario Monti had threatened to resign unless common euro bonds were introduced, although this was denied by a spokesperson for the PM. Interesting that as far as I am aware Ms Merkel's comments have not been denied…

Italian and Spanish borrowing costs surged at auctions yesterday, when the Italian government bought €2bn of bonds from its oldest bank, Monte di Paschi, in an attempt to shore up its capital cushion. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Despite the Queen's handshake with Martin McGuinness there is little reconciliation | Simon Jenkins

It is good that the Queen's visit has crossed a divide. But power sharing in Northern Ireland remains inherently unstable

'Queen shakes hands with IRA' would once have caused a sensation. Today it is a happy milestone on the rocky path of Irish reconciliation. Within a year, the monarch has made the first ever visit to the Republic of Ireland and is today greeting a republican leader in Belfast. That greeting is across a political divide but also a religious one, the divide that created Irish partition in 1922 and has underlain Ulster's troubled history ever since. For a monarch to cross a divide is not to unite it, but it is better than not crossing at all.

The history of attempts to end communal violence in Northern Ireland since the 1960s is sobering for all who claim for Britain some unique genius for domestic harmony, one that it is entitled to visit on Yugoslavs, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and others alike. At least until recently, each hesitant dawn has been followed by bloody dusk. From the collapse of power-sharing in 1974 to its stuttering resumption in Gordon Brown's "second Good Friday" in 2009, London's attempt to bring peace to Northern Ireland has demonstrated the maxim that no corner of the British empire is ruled so ineptly as one that is closest to hand.

Under British ministers, the evils of the old Protestant ascendancy were exacerbated by hamfisted security, school apartheid, state dependency and housing segregation, all contributing to a 30-year upsurge in communal division and bloodshed. Figures indicate that twice as many Ulster parishes are now more than 80% single faith as before direct rule. Each year, yet another incident of sectarian violence emanates – largely from young people educated wholly apart from half their fellow citizens. Far from being reconciled, most of Belfast has merely been segregated.

As a result, Northern Ireland had, at the last count, 80 barriers and "peace walls" dividing its urban and suburban neighbourhoods, three times as many as at the time of the partial ceasefire in 1994. Such a collapse in community concord is unknown elsewhere in Europe. It is hypocritical for Britain to lay down the law for "trouble spots" round the world when it cannot remove these social obscenities from its own backyard.

For four decades, a parallel "peace process" assumed that power to deliver reconciliation lay somewhere between London, Dublin and possibly Washington. Conferences on "conflict studies" used to lump together Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel-Palestine as if they were identical cases. A regular attender was the old IRA watcher, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who predicted that Northern Ireland would find peace not when London or Dublin ordained it but when local militants had grownup children, and craved respectability in retirement. He was right.

Peace has come to the streets of Northern Ireland crucially because the current generation of politicians, most from extremist groupings, tired of war and decided peace was in their interest. The old Provisionals, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, turned their coats and renounced the bullet in favour of the ballot. A bitterly divided Unionist majority, led by David Trimble, Ian Paisley and the current first minister, Peter Robinson, drifted hesitantly into an oligarchy of frigid and fragile power-sharing.

This oligarchy remains afloat on huge sums of Treasury cash, enough to make Greece seem a model of fiscal self-reliance. Fewer people than live in Greater Manchester are governed through 12 ministerial departments and a 400-strong first minister's office, bigger than Downing Street. The Belfast academic, Paul Bew, refers to the British taxpayer as "the great unsung hero of the Troubles".

Yet it has eventually worked. To visit Northern Ireland today is to sense a novel stability in the air. In Belfast, two separate citizenries that inhabit one city and who once never met, worked, studied, conferred, let alone governed together, now do at least some of these things. The economic problems of the Republic have halted the depopulation of the north. Security, the bugbear of divided communities, has at last come under local control, lubricated by a £1bn subvention from Gordon Brown in 2009.

That said, the future needs realism rather than hope. Ulster's present rulers, honed in a bitter struggle, have undoubted calibre, but they are mortal. They can shake hands with each other, not to mention the Queen, because they know they carry the confidence of their constituencies. That confidence may not outlive them. Northern Ireland politics is full of dark woods and frightening places. Sharing power across an ethnic or religious divide is inherently unstable. When the present generation passes, deluge may yet return.

For the old division remains. Belfast has not achieved religious reconciliation comparable with Glasgow or Liverpool. Northern Ireland was partitioned from the new Irish state to stave off the threat of armed revolt by its Protestant community. Ever since, its politics has relied on a Unionist majority wielding the power of plebiscite. It has relied on London's acceptance that whatever Ulster wants, Ulster gets. But were an Alex Salmond to emerge and demand independence or reunion with the Republic, England would be unlikely to complain.

Unionism is vulnerable to demography. The first minister, Peter Robinson, admits that it may soon need to preach its virtues to a swath of Catholic voters. The religious division is already in the region of 50-50. A recent poll had 54% of schoolchildren claiming to be Catholics, while only 35% of students now call themselves Protestant.

This "population time-bomb" was once used to explain, if not excuse, unionist paranoia. It is now inverted. Unionists will eventually lose their automatic veto on Irish reunion. They cannot forever coerce Catholics into being British, and must resort to an unfamiliar methodology, that of persuasion. Demography may yet be the greatest peacemaker of all. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


News Summary: Another Greek official resigns

News Summary: Another Greek official resigns
Sacramento Bee
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Curtis Roosevelt: Austerity Policy Has Pushed Europe to the Brink

The continual gatherings of heads of state, such as the one just concluded in Rome of Germany, France, Greece and Italy, reassure us that the euro will be saved. But the means to do so seem to be as elusive as ever.