30 June 2015

Greek crisis: Europe’s leaders have been worse than useless


It is customary for pro-EU sophisticates to be highly critical of David Cameron’s leadership on the European question. They ask why has he backed himself into a corner on this in-out referendum. Why can’t he explain exactly what he wants – specifically – from renegotiation? What does he want? Does he even know?

Some of this is fair. Rather than four or five years ago mapping out an alternative vision of the EU, arguing for an outer tier (with a much looser set of arrangements) which other EU countries could join, thus introducing a proper two-tier European Union, the Tory leader allowed himself to be pushed bit by bit into a renegotiate and referendum policy by his party and by events.

But some of the criticism is unwarranted. Cameron is not an ideologue and he took the pragmatic and potentially defensible view that with so much shifting in the EU, thanks to Greece and the troubles of the Eurozone, it was better to avoid too many specific demands. Personally, I think this approach is a mistake, because an opportunity is potentially being missed to overhaul the EU properly. But he may, as Cameron the great escapologist often does, get there in the end, almost by accident, because his fellow EU leaders are making such a hash of things over Greece.

Just as those in the Brussels elite like to put down Cameron, they usually revere Germany’s Angela Merkel in equal measure, which is one of life’s great puzzles. She is treated as though she is the Queen of Europe, her utterances sifted for meaning. Glowing and interminable profiles are penned.

Despite this, as I argued in the Sunday Telegraph a few days ago, even Merkel’s own supporters struggle to name any notable achievements or far-sighted acts of leadership other than the ruthless abandonment of her mentor Helmut Kohl. On her watch, the Greek crisis has escalated from a containable conundrum into a full-blown emergency and at no point has she displayed the élan and grit of a truly great European leader who might have resolved the situation. Instead, the bailouts of Greece (really bailouts of the financial institutions outside Greece that had lent the Greeks the money in the first place) have only made a bad situation worse and delayed the denouement. Elsewhere on CapX, Andrew Lilico explains this aspect of the crisis brilliantly.

But Merkel is not the only leading European leader who deserves criticism for the lamentable handling of the Greek debt crisis. More generally, the leadership from the Eurozone countries has been of an atrociously low standard since the debt crisis began.

Yes, it is easy for commentators to carp. Crisis management is difficult and perfection is impossible. Still, the electorates of Europe – the mighty continent that produced de Gaulle and Thatcher – surely had a right to expect more than the sub-standard fare they have been served up recently.

For all his bluster, in France Sarkozy never faced up to the realities of the Eurocrisis. Then Hollande arrived on his scooter, and has since done nothing – nothing of worth – to grip the Greek disaster

Then there is the EU. Read Jean Claude Juncker’s lamentable, self-pitying warbling earlier this week, for an insight into how ‎the deluded Eurocrats are thinking. He blames the Greeks. They have let him down. It is all someone else’s fault. Poor old Eurocrats.

Then there is the likeable Christine Lagarde at the IMF – an EU leader in all but name – who has landed the IMF with the biggest ever exposure ‎in its history. As Jeremy Warner asked in the Telegraph this week: would a developing country have been allowed such leeway? Don’t be silly. Lagarde and her predecessor were over-invested in saving the Eurozone and the EU by bailing out Greece because of their particular experience and pro-Eurozone worldview.

In that context, considering the dismal record of his European colleagues, there is a case for saying that David Cameron is far from the disaster that his Europhile (and Eurosceptics, for different reasons) say he is. Next time the Eurocrats give sniffy briefings about how Cameron and the Brits simply don’t get it, remember Greece and the disasters produced by an EU leadership class that has been worse than useless.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX