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UK Rejects Drafting New Eurozone Treaty: Continent Isolated

UK Rejects Drafting New Eurozone Treaty: Continent Isolated

What's Next, Prime Minister? — From The Evening Standard, London

At least 23 and perhaps as many as 26 of the 27 members of the European Union have agreed to an inter-governmental agreement that may or may not save the euro from the bond market vigilantes. A full-blown treaty failed because there was not unanimous support for the idea – Britain stood alone in saying flat out that it wasn’t signing up for that. Prime Minister Cameron had little choice either on the grounds of national interests or domestic politics. However, the EU is a much different place than it was just last week.

Mr. Cameron went to Brussels demanding that the UK have a veto over any financial services regulations. While this may seem a bit extreme, one must remember that France and Italy have protected their farming sector with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy for decades. And the euro’s greatest benefit to Germany was the protection of its neighboring export markets – a single currency ensured that German manufactured goods were still relatively affordable outside Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia. Britain simply wanted to protect the 10% of its GDP that comes from financial activity.

President Sarkozy of France explained why he could not accept that, saying “You cannot have an opt-out and then ask to participate in all the discussion about the euro that you did not want to have, and which you also criticized.” His European policy has always been to form a core group within Europe that excludes the more free-market British, Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans – this will maximize French power.

The details of the “fiscal compact” are pretty clear. The BBC reported them as “a cap of 0.5% of GDP on countries’ annual structural deficits, ‘automatic consequences’ for countries whose public deficit exceeds 3% of GDP; the tighter rules to be enshrined in countries’ constitutions; European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to be accelerated and brought into force in July 2012 adequacy of 500bn-euro (£427bn; $666bn) limit for ESM to be reassessed; Eurozone and other EU countries to provide up to 200bn euros to the IMF to help debt-stricken eurozone members.”

The agreement itself is far less important than Britain’s position in the EU. As the Economist noted, “Whether the agreement does anything to stabilise the euro is moot. The agreement is heavily tilted towards budget discipline and austerity. It does little to generate money in the short term to arrest the run on sovereigns, nor does it provide a longer-term perspective of jointly-issued bonds. Much will depend on how the European Central Bank responds in the coming days and weeks.”

Frankly, I don’t think it will work in the long-term. Greater austerity is not going to get the Greek or Portuguese economies growing anytime soon, but Hoover’s ghost haunts the eurozone now. And as a result, saving the whole thing is going to cost Germany more in the end than it would have a year or more ago.

Instead, Britain now finds itself alone on matters of budgeting and taxation within the EU. The 17 eurozone members and at least six others will be part of the inter-governmental agreement (just shy of a treaty in international legal terms), and Sweden, Hungary and the Czech Republic may sign up to it after parliamentary debates.

Why was Mr. Cameron so uncooperative? Quite simply because he had no choice. As noted, 10% of the UK’s GDP is finance based. Moreover, though, he leads a coalition that ranges from Conservatives who still think of Europe as the enemy, Conservatives who are tolerant of the EU’s existence, and Liberal-Democrats who are rabidly pro-Europe. His room for maneuver was very small, and his margin of error even smaller.

No matter what he did, he risked splitting these various factions. By vetoing a new treaty, he opted to distance the Conservative Party from the junior coalition Liberal Democrats. Not only is he Prime Minister, he is also leader of the Conservatives, so this should come as no surprise.

For their part, the Liberal Democrats are putting a brave face on it, but there is a clear sense that they know their policies have suffered a huge, perhaps lethal, setback. Leader of the LibDems and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg initially put the blame on the French and Germans rather than on Mr. Cameron. However, he has made it clear that he doesn’t like the result no matter who is to blame. He said on the Andrew Marr program on the BBC, “I’m bitterly disappointed by the outcome of last week’s summit, precisely because I think now there is a danger that the UK will be isolated and marginalised within the European Union. I don’t think that’s good for jobs, in the City [the UK’s financial district] or elsewhere, I don’t think it’s good for growth or for families up and down the country.” Since then, he has been more vocal in his protests.

Less diplomatic were statements from LibDem bigwigs Lords Oakeshott and Ashdown. Lord Oakeshott stated on the record that LibDem Business Secretary Vince Cable had “given a very serious warning last Monday in the cabinet against elevating these financial regulation points into a make or break deal.” Former leader of the LibDems, Lord Ashdown, put it in the blunt terms of the special forces soldier he once was stating that the veto “tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain.”

Where does all this leave us? The British governing coalition is clearly divided and may not survive the remaining three-and-a-half years this parliament has to run. Europe will move forward toward fiscal union, but without the UK. Moreover the other 9 EU members that aren’t part of the eurozone may discover that having Brussels handle their economic policy to suit German and French desires is less than appealing. There will be legal battles over the use of EU-wide institutions to enforce rules that do not apply to the entire EU. And in the end, the problem of heavily indebted countries failing to achieve meaningful economic growth remains the central issue in European finance.

2011 can’t end soon enough.



Jeff Myhre

Jeff Myhre is a graduate of the University of Colorado where he double majored in history and international affairs. He earned his PhD at the London School of Economics in international relations, and his dissertation was published by Westview Press under the title The Antarctic Treaty System: Politics, Law and Diplomacy. He is the founder of The Kensington Review, an online journal of commentary launched in 2002 which discusses politics, economics and social developments. He has written on European politics, international finance, and energy and resource issues in numerous publications and for such private entities as Lloyd's of London Press and Moody's Investors Service. He is a member of both the Foreign Policy Association and the World Policy Institute.