Almost the only achievement of the G20 summit that ended in Cannes yesterday was an agreement to increase the resources of the International Monetary Fund.
As the product of a day and a half of discussion by the leaders of the world's richest countries, this was a modest result. It was still more so, given that the precise details of how this will happen have yet to be fleshed out and probably will not be finalised until the February deadline looms.
It has also to be said that expectations for the Cannes gathering – a high-profile meeting that France's President, Nicolas Sarkozy, had hoped would help to launch his re-election bid – plunged in the immediate weeks before, because of the crisis in the eurozone. Then they plunged again, even as the leaders gathered, after the Greek Prime Minister suddenly announced, and then retreated from, a national referendum on the rescue package that had been stitched together so painfully by the eurozone only days before.
Modest as expectations and achievements for Cannes were, however, they were not quite modest enough for David Cameron's political comfort. Time and again he was pressed at his closing press conference about the agreement to boost contributions to the IMF, with the questioners implying that any increase in the British contribution was in fact covert assistance to the eurozone bailout of Greece. Mr Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, can expect more of the same from their MPs next week.
The slightest hint that British taxpayers are being made to help out the eurozone in general, or "feckless" Greeks in particular, is more grist to the mill of the parliamentary Conservative Party's resurgent Eurosceptics, who only two weeks ago embarrassed Mr Cameron by voting for a British referendum on EU membership. So long as the eurozone crisis persists – and it shows no sign of being resolved very soon – it will suit the sceptics to voice suspicions about where British money is really going.
Both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne have learnt to sense danger where Europe is concerned and yesterday they had their precautionary version ready for public consumption.
The line is that not a penny of British money is being spent on saving Greece; that contributing more to the IMF is an international duty, which also meets the national interest of a rich country with such a stake in global finance as our own, and that more than 50 countries receive help from the IMF, of which only three are in Europe. As for the future of the euro and the eurozone, so the authorised version goes, this is entirely the responsibility of the countries that belong to it; it is absolutely nothing to do with us.
This may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth, as Mr Cameron and his Government well know. Justifying his frequent trips to European meetings, the Prime Minister has said, rightly, that the survival and strength of the euro is in Britain's interest, and – by extension – that any setback for the single currency, or even the eurozone's collapse, could not but have an extremely adverse effect on the British economy.
Mr Cameron's insistence on being present in person at the most recent crisis gathering in Brussels – even though, of course, he could not attend the actual meeting that finalised the Greek rescue – said everything about how high the stakes were, and remain, for Britain.
We may not have signed up to the euro, but geography and economics give us more than a vicarious interest in its fate.
So it is regrettable that Mr Cameron has to cloak so much of Britain's response to the present crisis in terms that defer to the Eurosceptics.
Honesty about how tightly our interests are bound up with those of Europe and the eurozone would be the better policy.Reuse content