An idiots guide to dinner and the euro

Picture the scene, if you will.
You and a group of friends agree you will go out to dinner somewhere nice – let’s assume it’s to celebrate something. There are 27 of you in total.
In advance, you agree that because the bill will fairly hefty you’ll split it equally between all 27.
The big night arrives and you all meet at the restaurant, where everyone has an aperitif of the same value. Everyone has a starter course and a main course and all are roughly equal in value.
So far so good.
But then some of your group decide they want dessert and coffee, possibly dessert wine or a liqueur too. This causes concern and the group begins to fragment. There are 17 people who want the extra food and drink, 10 who don’t.
Of the 10 who don’t, some are now saying they are concerned that if the dinner doesn’t end soon they’ll miss the last train home. Others are refusing to put in an equal share of the bill – as previously agreed – because they haven’t had the extra food and drink.
So, what to do…?
Those who want to catch the last train home have two basic choices – leave now while some of their friends are finishing their dessert course and catch the train, or stay and find an alternative method of transport. They probably can’t impose their will on the others and deny them their crème brulee though. But nor should they stay and feel resentful.
The division of the bill is a tricky one too. You may well feel that by being asked to pay an equal sum but having consumed less, you are subsidising those of your friends who ate and drank more. But by reneging on the prior arrangement you risk being seen as mean. You may not get invited out again.
In the end one person refuses to pay an equal amount and leaves early in order to get the train, while everyone else stays behind.
Next time the group plans to go out together it is decided that despite the previous spat there’s no reason to exclude the grumpy and impatient friend. But no one is going to feel well disposed if that person starts out saying they won’t put in an equal amount this time, yet still wants to have an equal say in where to go and what to eat.
I think we all know how we’d feel about that one person.
And I don’t think we’d call it bulldog spirit.

Why Cameron could learn from Papandreou

Two weeks ago there was a rebellion by some Conservative MPs against David Cameron in a vote in the House of Commons.

The vote concerned a motion that called for referendum on whether the UK should exit the European Union, renegotiate the terms of its membership, or leave things as they are. The motion was put before the House by David Nuttall, a Conservative MP. There was also an e-petition on the matter, which gathered the support of over 100,000 UK citizens.

David Cameron called upon all his MPs to vote against it, and the Tory party whips went into action – cajoling and coercing Members to do just that.

When 81 Tory MPs voted counter to the wishes of their leader (two others abstained) this was the biggest ever rebellion by Conservatives in the House of Commons over the thorny issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

The motion was still comfortably defeated though, by 483 votes to 111. That outcome was never in any doubt. Had the unthinkable happened, and the motion had been passed, the result would not have been binding on the government anyway.

The only significant outcome there could ever reasonably have been was the one that happened – a number of Tories voted with their conscience as opposed to toeing the line. Some stated they were voting in accordance with the wishes of their constituents.

By making such a big deal out of insisting his MPs did as he told them, Cameron ended up suffering from the biggest rebellion etc etc etc.

What was he thinking? He should have publicly said that he was happy to see all MPs vote however they saw fit – safe in the knowledge nothing bad could ever happen. But instead of being big enough to relinquish control he allowed himself to appear defeated in a fight that mattered far less than the issue of whether the Prime Minister has the full backing of all of his party.

Meanwhile, this week in Greece saw Prime Minister Papandreou accept a Franco-German orchestrated bailout, only to turn round and say he wanted the Greek people to be able to vote in a referendum on whether they were happy with its terms. The French were not happy (plus ça change). Likewise, the Germans were less than thrilled.

Ultimately, Papandreou’s call for a referendum has been shelved.

So what? How likely is it that he ever thought he would succeed?

Maybe something else was behind this move. Perhaps, knowing he was returning home to ask the people of Greece to swallow a very bitter pill that had been designed by France and Germany, and would see years of hardship and austerity, Papandreou sought a way of deflecting the bad news.

Under the circumstances, he has managed to underline the fact that there was nothing further he could have done. Even when he wanted to use democratic means to enable the Greek people to feel they had a say, that their opinions might be heard, the dark hand of Europe’s pay-masters was seen to be shutting him up.

Well played George.

Everyone suspects your domestic political career won’t last much longer. But once you’re looking for something new to keep yourself busy, you should consider a visit to Downing Street where a bloke called Dave could really do with someone explaining to him how politics really works.

Footnote:

David Nuttall’s motion was a massive red herring anyway. The UK cannot unilaterally renegotiate the terms of its EU membership and there is absolutely no motivation for the EU to agree to any new terms the UK puts forward. Withdrawing from the EU is crazy talk – we all know that. So the only viable option from the three contained within the motion was the one where everything stays the same.

 

Further reading:
EU referendum: Rebels lose vote in Commons
Papandreou scraps Greek referendum as open warfare erupts in his party

 

 

The countdown to a federal Europe has begun

The European single market has been a good thing. It has enabled the free flow of labour across the continent (well, most of it), which has brought about innumerable economic and social benefits.

The European single currency, aka the Euro, has of late revealed itself as a flawed project.

A great deal of attention has been focussed on some of its more obvious problems:

  • the collapse of the Greek economy
  • the size of the bailouts required by Athens
  • the threat of economic contagion (hello Italy, sorry… maybe I mean goodbye Italy)
  • the growing influence of Germany, blah, blah, blah…..

But there is one thing that has been happening behind the scenes which I cannot help but feel is being allowed to go unnoticed.

By most measures, the Euro is in a mess.

Yet one of the long-lasting consequences of this will be the increasing influence of the European Central Bank.  In effect, a completely undemocratic institution will soon be making decisions that will impact very directly on the everyday lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Europe.

How has this come about? Chiefly because of a collective failure on the part of the major European leaders. A failure to get to the heart of the Euro crisis, to take difficult/unpopular decisions and see them through to the end. Instead they have fallen into one of the old and familiar habits of the bureaucratic mind – allowing institutional influence a freer hand to deal with problems which existing instituions have already failed to deal with effectively.

I can’t think of many other walks of life when failure to deliver X means you have carte blanche to press on with X + 1.

Only in high finance.

Only in European politics.

Well, I’m only a simple soul, clearly. I’m sure there are very good reasons for this.

But as someone who has always been a supporter of the European project (although not of political and fiscal union) to see the gradual shift of democratically-elected powers from Europe’s capitals to the institution of Europe itself does little to bolster my sense of bon homie.

I’m not sure it’s for me to say whether there ought to be a federal Europe or not. I am sure there are excellent arguments both for and against. But should that day come, I would hope that it is something that the citizens of Europe’s many and varied nations get the chance to have their say on and not something that slips in unannounced while we are all distracted.

Europe is dead

Europe is dead.

Or at any rate, the notion of a unified Europe is now in serious decline politically and economically.

Sovereign debt, bail-outs, and austerity measures have featured in the news for many months now but it is only very recently that some of the less obvious implications of these events have been discussed.

Let’s take the example of Portugal, the most recent European economy to come unstuck.

Like most countries, Portugal relies on borrowing and issuing bonds to keep the wheels of its domestic economy turning.

In April, Portugal has €5 billion of repayments to honour.  There’s a similar amount due to be repaid in a few months’ time.

To meet those commitments, particularly the second tranche, Portugal will – in all likelihood – need to borrow.  But as an economy in trouble, it is penalised by having higher rates of interest applied to its bonds.  IE: the markets want a higher rate of return in exchange for what is considered a higher risk loan.

That rate of interest is in the region of 8% over a period of 10 or so years.

The Portuguese economy will not grow at anything like that rate. Meaning that meeting its repayment responsibilities in the future will become increasingly harder.  Which in turn has to increase the likelihood of Portugal defaulting on its debts.

No problem, some will say… there are bail-out options.

Yes, there are. And they are mostly funded by Germany, the Netherlands and to a lesser extent France and Finland.

There is a growing sense of dissatisfaction within these countries, especially Germany, that the domestic tax-payer is bailing out their lazy southern European neighbours. Politically-speaking, this is an unsustainable situation and unless it has been dealt with before then, it will become a major issue at the next German general election.

There is a sense among some economists that as long as this situation is confined to Ireland, Greece and Portugal (smaller nations) the rest of Europe needn’t worry.

But should Spain or Italy, for example, succumb to the financial fallout the consequences would be harder to live with for Europe as a whole and could herald the end of the Euro.

No one seems to have any answers as to how any of this could be avoided or how Europe gets out of this situation. Ignoring it, however, won’t make it go away.