Adrian Hamilton: Britain still has a role to play in rescuing the euro

World View


Now that David Cameron has belatedly started talk of "constructive" relations with the EU, that Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy have (if belatedly) affirmed that they do actually want the UK to remain in the EU, and that the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, has declared that he too wants to work with Britain, perhaps we can return to an adult conversation about where we go next.

So far, all the attention, here and on the Continent, has – understandably – been on Cameron's veto. He didn't really have any choice politically, and it is noticeable that neither Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, or Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, could this week say precisely what they would have done in the same circumstances. It was nonetheless a terrible weakness of the British negotiating tactics to allow the British decision to become the main focus of the summit.

The crux of this crisis is the problem of the eurozone. The thrust of the latest effort to meet it has been the Franco-German plans to produce a dramatic tightening of rules in the zone to reassure the markets. The reality is that it has failed to do so. The rates on the sovereign debt of most eurozone members haven't fallen. The euro is trading at its lowest rate since the beginning of the year.

You can blame this on Britain raining on the eurozone parade if you so want. And France and others clearly do want to. But the British veto has very little to do with it. The markets reacted to the summit – or rather failed to do so – because they saw all the talk of pacts and discipline as an avoidance of action to tackle the problem of debt, not a means towards it.

This leaves Paris and Berlin in a bind. They have sold the "project" not just to the markets but to their own populations as the decisive action to settle the crisis once and for all. That is why all the 26 members and would-be members, small and big, went along with it. If it had worked, then the haste and lack of consultation might have been justified. Now that it hasn't, political life becomes more difficult.

Berlin and Paris can't go back on the deal for fear that, once having announced the advance, retreating would unsettle the markets even more. Yet individual members will now have a far greater problem in selling such a potential loss of sovereignty to their electorates, if they can do so at all.

That may not be such a bad thing. It was always a mistake of Chancellor Merkel to seek an agreement of all EU members to a treaty revision. Barroso may hate the British for vetoing it because he saw the treaty revision as a means of establishing the Commission as the centre of economic management in Europe. But it shouldn't be, not when the crisis doesn't involve everyone and not when there is no democratic mandate for such a radical change.

Eurozone leaders must now seek that mandate in their own way. The logic of a single currency is greater federalism, but whether this is in the form of tightening rules and a central bank or actual pooling of economic management is an uncertain question.

In the meantime, the EU as a whole is going to have to tackle the more immediate crisis of lending and the need for co-ordinated policy to encourage growth. Britain should join in. There was nothing as pathetic this week as George Osborne's statement in a radio interview that the Government had already "repatriated powers from Brussels" by withdrawing from the bailout via the IMF.

But then Germany, along with France, has to come to the table with better ideas of rescue, debt purchase and the issuance of bonds. Everyone in this crisis needs a measure of humility about their mistakes so far – and to apply real imagination in deciding what to do next.

As the US finally quits Iraq, we can't ignore the wrongs we committed

The US finally leaves Iraq with a lot less trouble and humiliation than anyone might have thought possible. It is an indication not so much of its achievement in bringing about a new order after Saddam Hussein as the extent to which the US force has simply become a less and less important player in the country's affairs.

Credit where credit is due, however. President Obama took the decision to set a date for withdrawal. He faced down the military and the neo-cons – and the risk that events would make his decision appear cowardly. He's achieved an end which, while it couldn't be described as "victorious", is at least reasonably dignified. Iraq was not a success, but most Americans know that.

One wishes the same could be said of the British withdrawal two years ago when we left Basra with our tail between our legs. No one wants to admit it in public, but the reality was that, for British arms and diplomacy, Iraq was a failure and a humiliating one at that. We followed the wrong policies, lost the initiative to the insurgents, and retreated to barracks to leave the Americans to sort out the mess.

The Chilcot Inquiry is investigating, with painful deliberation, how it was we went to war. What would be even more useful would be an in-depth examination of the way we conducted ourselves afterwards – carried out not in the spirit of blame but to face up to where we went wrong.

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