Greek debt crisis: pushing more European integration?

As the Greek debt crisis rolls on, some in Britain worry that the crisis is being used to undermine economic sovereignty and pushes European integration further.

Thierry Charlier/AP/File
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (center) arrived for an EU summit in Brussels last week. Now that European leaders have created a financial safety to contain the Greek debt crisis, some worry that the crisis will boost efforts for more European integration.

If Greece bond prices are any indication, investors are saying the Greek debt crisis isn’t over.

On Thursday, the world's largest bond fund, Pimco, said that European efforts to back Greece and its austerity plans, were not enough – a warning that bodes ill for the country's future ability to raise funds at lower interest rates.

The continuing Greek crisis is reviving tensions over economic sovereignty – as well as exposing the difficulty of managing 16 diverse economies that share a single currency, the euro.

Some see the Greek debt crisis as underscoring the need for a unified European economic policy or greater “economic governance” – a vision endorsed this week by the European Commission in the EU’s Brussels executive meeting.

Opponents of a grand European union project suspect powerful players like France and the European Union’s new president, Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, of using Greece’s troubles to push that agenda.

“Throughout the whole Greek crisis you can see that moves have been made towards increased economic governance,” says Sarah Gaskell, an analyst at Open Europe, a London-based think tank critical of European integration.

An even more contentious phrase was initially touted last week by France and Germany for new bloc-wide rules that would create a system of European "economic government" before it was watered down, partly through the efforts of Britain, which remains outside of the euro zone but is still an influential European Union member state.

Ms. Gaskell points out however that “government” has survived in the French translation of last week’s accord, which was largely about creating an IMF-linked safety net for the Greeks but also envisaged new sanctions being brought against other wayward euro zone spenders in future.

“There is obviously disagreement about economic government which Ireland and Sweden and Britain were traditionally wary because it gives suggests greater federalism,” she adds.

More economic harmonization?

Nevertheless, voices in favor of greater policy harmonization across the euro zone continue to view economic imbalances as an impetus.

Conscious of emerging gaps between member states – Spain’s unemployment rate stands at 19 percent compared to four percent in the Netherlands – the European Commission said in its quarterly report Wednesday: “The crisis has shown that the economic governance of the euro area needs further substantial improvement.”

“Drawing lessons from the crisis, we need to broaden the focus of our surveillance beyond fiscal policy to include relevant developments of macroeconomic imbalances."

It called on Germany - which has irked its euro zone partners by clinging to its traditional model of maintaining large domestic savings and external trade surpluses - to stimulate demand in its domestic private sector.

The demands for Berlin to stimulate domestic demand at one end of the scale and pressure on Athens to embrace austerity measures highlight growing tensions about how balance the euro zone economy and strengthen its common currency.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s director general, offered advice Monday: “When you build a single currency, the natural step that follows should be a coordinated economic policy. Beyond monetary policy, Europeans must give themselves the means to manage economic policy.”

However, while that vision is finding increasing acceptance among powerbrokers within the currency bloc, at least one likely consequence of it would be to set Britain even further apart from other EU states inside the euro zone.

How Greek crisis plays in Britain

Although the Greek crisis is well down the list of priorities for most Britons, who are still preoccupied with the UK’s own fragile recovery, giving Brussels even minor powers to interfere with Britain’s budgetary plans would be largely anathema. Polls show that while Britons are frightened of withdrawal from the EU, they still don’t like the union and continue to cling to the pound.

Seeking to tap into this mood in the wake of last week’s Greek rescue plan, the Conservative Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, William Hague, said that the debt crisis demonstrated “how right” Britain was to stay outside the euro.

He warned: “It is crucial that any EU deal does not impose any financial liability on Britain. While we should all work together to make Europe as economically successful as possible, talk of economic governance should in no way restrict Britain’s ability to determine our own economic policies and the Government should make that absolutely clear.”

So what if, as the polls suggest, a narrow election win delivers Britain a Conservative government this summer?

In some ways, storm clouds are already gathering on the basis of Tory threats to pull out of a number of European-wide accords and a divisive move towards allying itself with a grouping of nationalist – some say extreme right – parties in the European Parliament.

At the same time, Charles Grant, the director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, isn’t convinced that the stage is now set for friction between a Tory-led Britain heading in one direction and European partners heading in another.

“A lot of people are saying it, but I don’t see this crisis leading to a further leap in European integration,” he says.

“When the French talks about it [economic government], or the Germans talk about these new ‘torture weapons’ to punish bad governments, both governments know that they won’t get them,” adds Grant, who views last week’s accord as a ‘sticking plaster’ and says that the momentum for further European integration has been seriously dwindling in recent years.

As for the future fault lines between Britain and the rest of Europe, he expects the Conservatives to surprise observers by taking a “constructive” approach.

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