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Friday, 9 December 2011

Eurosceptics, beware: the euro crisis is bad for you too | Jackie Ashley

Mayhem. Catastrophe. Apocalypse. Chaos. A hail of brimstone. The end of the (consumerist) world. Years of misery … And that's just the more optimistic parts of the media, as they contemplate the breakup of the eurozone. Politicians wring their hands as they contemplate the changing world of ever-lower expectations.

Only one group, it seems, has cause to feel chipper – all those "told you so" Eurosceptics who inveighed against the euro and federalism all along. Surely this is the moment when the British anti-Brussels movement reaches its maturity? It has been vindicated even by Jacques Delors, who now admits the dreaded Anglo-Saxons had a point when they argued that you couldn't have a single currency without a single economy and thus a single government. Now, with David Cameron caught between his earlier pledge of a referendum if there was a treaty change and the horror of a disorderly collapse of the system, they can exert maximum influence.

Far from it. The oddest and least discussed aspect of the euro crisis is that it is bringing Eurosceptics the worst news they could have imagined – they just haven't noticed yet. They are getting terribly excited about the prospect of a referendum, and queuing up in the rightwing press to threaten Cameron with all kinds of trouble if he tries to avoid one, when in fact they should step back sharpish: because if there is a referendum, they will now certainly lose it.

How can that be? Haven't the scenes of fury in Greece and Italy, the mass youth unemployment in Spain, the creaks from French banks and the rising anger of German taxpayers, all added up to a picture of Euro-chaos the British would be delighted to stay clear of? If the choice is to be out of all that or deeper into the mire, surely this time the British would say "no thanks"? If this is not the moment of truth, then when?

The answer to all this can be found in the charts and tables issued with the autumn statement. They amount to a terrible few years ahead for the British economy, even without a euro breakdown. They mean radically less spending power, particularly for women and families around average incomes, much worse pensions, and higher unemployment, particularly for younger people.

With the Lib Dems and Tories committed to going into the next election promising not better times but another £30bn or so of cuts, this is perhaps the bleakest political and economic outlook in my lifetime – worse, in many respects, than the dark years of the late 70s, when we had a more diverse economy.

The coalition is caught in a vice, as Nick Clegg pretty much admitted this weekend. George Osborne can shuffle around small piles of money, trying to appease groups which pollsters tell him are angry and dangerous (rail commuters, mothers of small children) but only by taking away money from other groups (families, older people) which will make them angry and dangerous. They have too few plasters and too many cuts.

Voters know just how bad things have become. Polling in the Observer found 64% of those questioned thought today's young people would have a worse life than their parents. Talk of a "lost decade" is widespread. But – and here is the crucial point – all this is as nothing to what would happen if the eurozone crisis resulted in its breakup. We would see a run on European banks, which would infect our banking system and cause a collapse that would make 2008 look modest. Our economy, so heavily dependent on European exports and imports, would crash. Unemployment would soar. The social consequences are frankly unimaginable.

I believe voters know this too. If, this week, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy manage to agree on more short-term German support for Spain and Italy, in return for a major deepening of the European Union – the so-called fiscal union – they will be greeted as unlikely heroes. We are all on the same precipice together. We all know it.

Yet this fiscal union would be, in national political terms, undemocratic. It would have to be. What would it really mean? It would be about Germany, backed by the other stronger northern states, dictating how much Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Irish and Greek governments could borrow, spend and tax. That is, to all intents and purposes, a political takeover, even if masked by European institutions such as the European Central Bank. Britain, for the foreseeable future, will be outside. The euro-group will take its own decisions in its own interests, trying to rebuild a fragile continental economy in a bleaker world. It may not pick battles with those economies outside, but it will have no reason to listen to special British pleas about the City or working-time directives. For a taster, look at how little time Sarkozy could be bothered to spend with Cameron when he arrived in Paris; and how much more important his meeting with Merkel is.

Asked whether we should stand completely outside, not just in the outer tier, taking our chances with no EU influence, I think most voters will be too terrified to agree. That is why a referendum would be lost by the "no" camp, and that is why they are daft to be pressing for one.

The bigger truth is that years of neoliberalism and deregulation have left us with a weak economy. We are stronger than Mediterranean states, which used the euro as an excuse to relax and splurge. But we are a lot weaker than Germany, which invested properly in training and technology, whose banking system stuck with manufacturing, and whose people continued to save for rainy days rather than borrow and gamble. If Germany is calling the shots it's because Germany has earned the right to lecture the rest.

We are going to need to rebalance our economy and society too. We are going to have to stop living in the shadow of casino economics and have tougher, more practical education. We are also going to have to live more frugally and work a bit harder. To accomplish this without the breakup of liberal Britain, we need politicians who really care about fairness, and who distribute the pain more appropriately than George Osborne did in the autumn statement.

One day, the agonising choice is going to return again: accept less sovereignty inside a single-currency bloc, or stay outside. This is a huge dilemma, but for another day. What is crystal clear right now is that, offered the chance of a still bleaker future outside the EU entirely, a large majority of British voters would shudder and say: you must be joking. Eurosceptics, beware what you ask for.

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