EU: Recent Developments — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:02 pm on 16th February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Radice Lord Radice Labour 2:02 pm, 16th February 2012

My Lords, it is always very good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, who, as usual, is extremely wise in his remarks on European matters. Clearly, this is a very important debate with a lot of people wanting to get in. We have already heard some impressive speeches. Perhaps I may just say something nice to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, whom I do not always praise. He made a very able tour d'horizon and put a very positive case for British membership, which was good to hear. My noble friend Lord Mandelson combined realism with vision in a most exemplary manner. I want to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Harrison, who is not in his place, for his excellent Select Committee report, which he addressed very ably.

Of course, in this kind of debate some noble Lords who have spoken-for example, the noble Lords, Lord Lamont and Lord Higgins-and some still to speak who are listening to the debate, have always believed that the euro was a flawed project from the start which was bound to fail. Therefore, what has happened in the eurozone over the past year or so has merely confirmed their original, brilliant judgment and there has been a certain amount of Schadenfreude going around.

My position is different. I speak as someone who not only was in favour of European monetary union but also took the view that, if the circumstances were right, there was a strong case for the UK joining the euro. For a number of years, over the period of what has been called the great moderation, monetary union worked well. The euro was introduced with competence and speed. It rapidly became the world's second currency. The number of members of the eurozone increased to 17 and the eurozone by and large prospered.

However, the banking crisis and the credit crunch of 2008, which we seem to have forgotten had its origins not on the continent of Europe but in the United States, also caused a crisis of confidence in the eurozone. That was most notably, of course, in Greece but it has spread to other countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain and even Italy. As I freely admit, the crisis has revealed shortcomings in the original architecture of economic and monetary union, including asymmetry between a centralised monetary policy and a decentralised fiscal position, competitive imbalances between member states and a lack of an adequate bailout mechanism for countries in trouble.

The response of the leaders of the eurozone has been extremely slow and uncertain. As Professor Buiter said, their decision-making has been like "a caterpillar hurdling". All the same, my view is that the eurozone remains part of the solution rather than the problem. That is the division in this debate. For those who think that that is incorrect, I ask them to imagine the reaction of the European countries without the EU and without the euro. First, there would be competitive devaluation, with all its impact on living standards. The idea that somehow devaluation is a soft option and that you do not have to cut living standards is economically totally illiterate. Secondly, there would be the spread of self-defeating protectionism. Thirdly, as in the 1930s, there would be the rise of extremist nationalism. We should not think that somehow there is an easy world outside, which if you get rid of the eurozone will suddenly solve all the problems. It just is not there.

I believe that the monetary union, provided that it is reformed, affords a framework for recovery, to which I will devote the rest of my remarks. It is true that the eurozone is still not out of the woods by a long chalk but there are some encouraging signs. The Greek psychodrama continues but it is noticeable that since the end of last year borrowing rates have been falling for some other countries. In the survival of the euro, which I think will survive, Italy is the key country. It is noticeable that the spread between Italian and German 10-year bonds has narrowed by some 200 basis points and is continuing to shrink. There is no doubt that the advent of Mario Monti, the Italian Prime Minister, is making a real difference, not only in Italy but across Europe and in the markets as a whole.

There have been some other promising developments. First, the strengthening of the euro stabilisation mechanism will come into effect in July 2012. Secondly, the ECB under Mario Draghi has enhanced credit support for bank lending, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, pointed out. It has already provided 500 European banks with a total of nearly €500 billion in three-year low-interest loans. That will be repeated at the end of February. The noble Lord is right to say that this has been a game-changer. Thirdly, there has been the fiscal compact, which was agreed on 30 January 2012. There is something in what some people say, and the point has already been made in the debate, that this amounts to not much more than a beefed-up stability and growth pact. But it has a political point, which is key to ensuring the crucial German support for an effective bailout mechanism for the eurozone.

However, as in the UK, the big weakness of European policy at present is the lack of a credible growth strategy. Without growth, it will be difficult to reduce deficits and unemployment will continue to rise. We are told that Mario Monti went to Berlin to say that, and that something more was needed than austerity, while the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, has argued that countries which are in a position to expand should be able to do so. Certainly a sustained domestic expansion in Germany would do the eurozone a power of good. We have had two years of domestic expansion; let us have more. Also, we have the welcome prospect of a recovery gathering pace in the United States and it is hoped that this will be yet another example of the new world coming to the aid of the old.

Finally, I turn to the United Kingdom. I believe that it was a mistake for the UK to stay out of the so-called fiscal compact. I am afraid that during my political lifetime this country has had an unhappy tradition of either opting out of European projects or joining late when the parameters have already been set. But even though we are not in the euro, what happens in the eurozone has a major impact on our economy, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, rightly said; we cannot escape it. It is also very much in our interest to ensure, for example, that the integrity of the single market is preserved. The European Select Committee report is surely right when it states that:

"Shifting discussions outside the main EU channels to forums where the United Kingdom has no voice risks marginalising the UK over time".

We may have very good advice for the eurozone-and we often think we do have-but no one will listen if we are not actually there. We cannot defend the City or protect the single market if we are not at the table. As a former Belgian Prime Minister graphically put it, "If you are not at the table, you are part of the menu". There is a strong case for the UK becoming part of the so-called fiscal compact.

At a time of crisis for the eurozone, a crisis that affects us as much as it does the eurozone members, it is surely folly for the United Kingdom to stand outside. In the modern world, isolation is not splendid; it is foolish. If we are to defend our interests and help lead Europe out of its difficulties, as we ought to, it is our duty both to our citizens and to Europe to be involved and to participate.