Is the EU about to stuff it up on international climate change (again)?

So near, and yet so far – as so often in EU climate policy. Back in December of last year, at the Durban climate summit, it looked as though the EU was finally getting on the front foot and managing to set the agenda for once on international climate policy.

Where the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit had seen the EU and its partners badly outflanked by a low ambition consensus of the US and the BASIC countries (leading to a voluntary pledge-and-review approach rather than the binding targets-and-timetables approach that the EU wanted), it appeared at the 2011 Durban summit that a new dynamic might be emerging – based on a partnership between the EU and low income countries who were not only increasingly focusing on global mitigation scenarios, but also increasingly prepared to break ranks with the G77 and speak out about the need for emerging economies to do more to reduce their own emissions.

The surprising spectacle of the EU managing to gets its act together will have made many US and emerging economy policymakers sit up and take notice. But all of them will also have been wondering whether the EU and its partners would manage to build on this initial success and turn it in to an inflection point on the global climate agenda, with the new alliance not only maintaining political momentum, but also converting it into design principles for future climate policy.

Alas, the signs now emerging are not good if this Reuters piece today is to be believed:

The European Union recommitted to providing 7.2 billion euros ($9.4 billion) for the Green Climate Fund over 2010-12, according to draft conclusions seen by Reuters ahead of a meeting of EU finance ministers next week. But after that, how much cash will flow is unclear as the text, drafted against the backdrop of acute economic crisis in the euro zone, states the need to “scale up climate finance from 2013 to 2020”, but does not specify how.

The article goes on to detail that EU ministers are arguing over how much of the money should come from public and how much from private sources – needless to say, many ministers would find it a lot easier to exhort the private sector to do more than to do pony up the cash themselves.

Although the article doesn’t name names on which countries are causing the problems, it’s a fair bet that Poland figures prominently among them, especially given that Poland vetoed plans for the EU to adopt a 30% (rather than merely 20%) emissions reduction target by 2020. In the background, there’s the further problem that Italy and Spain – two countries who in the past tended to side with calls for more ambitious action – are likely to fall away as their economies implode.

Although the Green Climate Fund is far from being the biggest issue on the climate negotiating table, it matters a lot to many low income countries. If the EU looks like it can’t be trusted to stick with them on the issues they really mind about most, then it’s hard to see an EU-low income country alliance setting the pace on the larger global climate agenda over the next couple of years – and we can look forward to lots of crowing from emerging economies made gleeful by the opportunity to argue that this is what happens when G77 solidarity is allowed to fracture.

Britain and Europe after the veto

What a day. Five observations:

  1. My initial reaction this morning: On a sinking Titanic, the UK is lobbying to avoid further damage to the iceberg.  If David Cameron was motivated mostly by his wish to suck up to the City (and to his backbenchers), then he deserves all that fate can throw at him. He has transformed eventual British exit from the EU from Eurosceptic fantasy to the new conventional wisdom in just 12 hours. Quite a feat.
  2. But maybe… his government has decided that the euro is now doomed and has made a rational decision to swim as far from the vortex as possible. Many believe that a disorderly break up of the single currency has become more likely than not. That would probably cost the UK 10% of GDP and make British default a near certainty. But if that’s what’s going to happen, then we better knuckle down to being as resilient to the shock as possible.
  3. The British veto makes euro failure more, not less, likely. In theory, agreement between a core group is easier than having all 27 countries in the room, but the legal complications of conjuring a new set of institutions from thin air are daunting. Also, expect the core to shrink as the summit’s aspirations are chewed up by domestic politics. Each defection will provide a potential trigger for wider breakdown – probably when a group of the strong decide all hope is lost, and make a collective rush to the lifeboats. By being the first to desert the ship, Cameron has made it much easier for other European leaders to follow.
  4. Contingency planning must now go much deeper. Behind the scenes, governments are playing out failure scenarios, and most big businesses have some kind of post-euro plan in place. Much of the thinking is still pretty rudimentary, however. The eurozone countries can’t risk letting markets see them flinch and have to put a brave face on their prospects, but the UK no longer needs to have such scruples. What exactly would we do if the euro goes down? What would be thrown overboard? What, and who, would be saved? How can the government organise effective collective action as the catastrophe hits?
  5. Nick Clegg is dead, politically. That was already true, but I can’t imagine even Miriam González Durántez now plans to support her husband at the next election. Paradoxically, accepting his terminal status could give Clegg new freedom of action. Instead of continuing to play the role of coalition gimp, he should offer leadership to those keen to explore what comes after the storm. Politicians with proper jobs – Cameron, Osborne, even Cable – are going to be overwhelmed by events throughout this parliament, even in the best case where Europe struggles back onto its feet. Clegg, though, has an opportunity to focus energy on the longer term. He’ll still lead the Lib Dems to electoral Armageddon, but catalysing a vision for renewal might make posterity a little kinder to the poor man.

Russian bear hugs the West tighter?

Two years ago, Georgian forces shelled the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia hitting the base of Russian peacekeepers as well as civilian housing. Russia responded immediately with a massive ground and air assault and in five days inflicted a heavy defeat on its tiny neighbour, occupying a band of Georgian territory into the bargain.

The conflict had several immediate results.

Already fraught relations between Moscow and Tbilisi plunged to new depths and diplomatic relations were severed.

Russia and three other countries recognised the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

And relations between Russia and the West – the US and the EU – deteriorated to their worst level since the collapse of the USSR – there was even talk of a new Cold War from western politicians.

The Cold War analogies led some commentators to argue Russian foreign policy had taken a decisive anti-western turn and things could and/or should never be the same again

Two years later, the one thing that seems unlikely to ever be the same again is the shape and size of Georgia. If recognition from Russia was not enough, the recent International Court of Justice opinion that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was not against international law, makes it even less probable Tibilsi could regain control of its lost regions. Continue reading

US and EU: Others must fail

When I took part in a wash-up after Copenhagen with a group  of American policy makers, I was struck by the sense that, although the summit had been tough for the United States, they took great consolation that the Europeans had had a much worse time of it during the climate talks.

It all made me think of a quip attributed to Gore Vidal: “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Today, Richard posts the following digest of Hillary Clinton’s meeting with the UK’s new Foreign Secretary, William Hague (a man she is yet to grow as fond of as she was of his predecessor):

If you want to boil all this down to essentials, I’d suggest the following: (i) Mrs Clinton effectively said, “you’d better show discipline when it comes to the EU”; and (ii) Mr Hague basically said “OK”.

I’d parse the ‘better show discipline’ line in two ways. First, the US wants the UK to play an active role in Europe. Second, it needs the Europeans to respond with one voice to a growing roster of global problems.


But to take this beyond complacent lecturing (“we may have a lamentable recent foreign policy record, but at least we’re not as shambolic as those awful old worlders”), the Obama administration needs to do what it can to create an incentive for European cooperation.

When it (i) starts listening to Europeans when they have caucused and arrived at a joint position; (ii) continues to listen, even if it doesn’t agree 100% with the European position; and (iii) foregoes the temptation to divide and conquer by playing favourites among European nations for short term tactical advantage – then, and only then, will I believe that the US is serious once again about the transatlantic relationship.

If Obama’s team wants a ‘disciplined Europe’, good. But it should back this up with its actions. Reward Europe with access when it’s united (as it was, more or less, on climate incidentally). Sideline it when it’s divided. And see the extent to which that makes Europeans pull together in the face of transnational challenges…

After the vote – confronting the economic crisis

I thought I could safely ignore the election for a few hours this evening. I voted days ago by post. And not much normally happens before the polls close at 10 pm.

But the past few hours has seen worrying economic tremors – as a raft of bad news from China and Europe, combined with skittishness over what will happen in Westminster tomorrow, drove a panic in the markets (with a trader’s error possibly fuelling the chaos [for more – see Felix Salmon]).

A 4 per cent drop in Chinese stocks started the downbeat mood, which carried over to Wall Street’s S&P 500 index, which was down 6 per cent to 1,065 – its sharpest correction in over a year, erasing its 2010 gains in one afternoon. The VIX index of market volatility spiked to its highest in a year.

“It’s really shocking,” said Jeff Palma, global strategist at UBS. “Stocks fell to minus nine on the year within seconds, that was a pretty shocking move. This is not your normal every day pull back, this is a pretty full-on collapse in risk appetite.”

As Alex pointed out earlier this week, bond markets will be open at 1 a.m. (in just four hours’ time) – at which they throw fuel onto the fire if they so choose:

Bond traders will be able to react in real time to results rolling in from key marginal seats, in other words: so as well as measuring how the night’s going through the traditional BBC swingometer, we’ll also be able to track progress through yields on three month short Sterling interest rate futures. Well, great.

All this reinforces how the UK – bereft of leadership throughout the campaign – has been sleep walking as a new economic reality (and a pretty disastrous one, at that) unfolds around it.

That’s why, over a week ago now, I called for the Chancellor (for now, at least) Alistair Darling to get off the campaign trail and get back behind his desk:

Election or no election, the UK simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while this crisis runs out of the control. Alistair Darling needs to stop giving speeches to activists in Scotland and get back to work at the Treasury.

Lord Adonis stopped campaigning as soon as Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Darling must do the same as the UK faces contagion from Eurozone turmoil.

Let’s hope he is at work now. Until a new PM has the ‘confidence of the House’ (and if results are close, that could take days to work out), he is 100% responsible for the British economy.

If necessary, he needs to haul in George Osborne and Vince Cable, and hammer out a consensus behind any short-term fire-fighting measures that might be necessary.

Once we have a new government – and assuming we have weathered any immediate post-election crisis – the team (of whatever political colour) will need to take an extremely active approach to economic policymaking.

Gordon Brown may have got the UK into this mess (he did), but there can be little doubt that the British government has played an important, and at times pivotal role, in trying to patch things back together again.

You just have to look at the absolute mess that the Germans and French have made of responding to the Greek crisis to see that this is a time when any half-way competent hand needs to be called onto the bridge.

I continue to believe that we’re seeing the latest stages of a crisis that stretches back until at least the late 1990s. This long financial crisis should force leaders to admit that they are part of an economic system that (i) they don’t understand; and (ii) seems to becoming more volatile, rather than less.

So how should the new PM and his Chancellor react? Here are three pointers – each of which cover the UK’s international economic policy (and its domestic policy, insofar as it is important to broader global financial stability).

First, the new government needs to balance the risks inherent in high levels of public and private debt.

We have heard a lot about the government’s deficit in this election, and quite a bit about its overall debt. But almost nothing has been said about colossal levels of private debt.

Private citizens owe much more than the government – most of it in the form of mortgages, secured against a residential property market that is significantly overvalued. (I wrote at length about the election and the housing crisis here.)

It’s no good trying to appease the global financial markets simply by cutting spending or raising taxes. Stall the recovery and unemployment will shoot up, while property prices will head down, threatening the banks again, and sending the tax take much lower.

No-one is going to be fooled into believing that the government can repay its debt, if we are hit by the twin nightmares of a double dip recession and housing market crash. That really would be game over.

So what can the government do?

There is so little room for manoeuvre that the unfortunate answer may be: nothing. However, I think the best strategy would be as follows:

  • Take immediate and dramatic action to cut the structural deficit (I’d raise retirement age immediately, and then peg it to life expectancy – but any package of credible long-term tax or spend commitments would do).
  • Avoid raising taxes or cutting spending by much in the short term, as the economy is still too fragile to take it (the government should probably make less of a song and dance about its caution here).
  • Be explicit with the markets that interest rates will be kept low (propping up the housing market and boosting growth), even as the economy recovers – that the government’s main weapon against inflation will be its own spending. Think of this as a piece of reverse-Keynesianism.
  • Take action to ensure that today’s secondary bubble in the housing market is not allowed to inflate further. Plans to cut stamp duty, for example, should definitely be put on hold. We don’t want housing prices to fall too fast, but neither should they be allowed to rise above today’s totally unsustainable levels.

Second, the government needs to get stuck into the Eurozone crisis, as I recommended in my post on Europe earlier this week, when I recommended that it should be:

…aiming for (in order of preference): (i) A strengthening of the Euro with greater sharing of economic sovereignty among Eurozone members (but with the UK left on one side); or (ii) An orderly removal of the weaker economies from the single currency.

Even on the Euro, the UK has some influence as an honest broker, given its position as an interested party, but not a full player. Cameron should adopt this role wholeheartedly – reminding British voters that the disorderly breakup of the single currency would be absolute disaster for the UK economy.

Third, we need to get the G20 back on track.

It briefly emerged as the forum for tackling the global economic crisis, but has now gone AWOL for, I suspect, a number of reasons:

  • Obama is embroiled in a political system that cannot make foreign policy decisions.
  • The Chinese are still bruised after Copenhagen.
  • The Eurozone powers have utterly lost their nerve, and
  • The Brits have left the field as the election approached.

Only the G20 has any hope of steering the global economy through what seem certain to be some exceptionally rocky times. If it is allowed to become a hopeless talking shop like the G8, then I think we are probably screwed.

Over the next year or so, the UK’s G20 policy will be its foreign policy. It’s essential that we have some radical new ideas to put on the table.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

After the vote: the Tories and Europe

Early today, I pointed out some of the difficulties Europe could cause David Cameron in his early months as PM (should he form either a minority government, find himself leading a coalition, or win a majority tomorrow).

But what would a positive agenda for a new Conservative (or Conservative-led) government look like on the EU, given (i) the dreadful problems facing the Euro (a debt crisis from which sterling is not immune); (ii) broader strains in global strains (fall out from the financial crisis, growing competition for resources, nuclear proliferation etc.); (iii) the Conservatives’ historic ambivalence about the European Union?

Here are six pointers for Cameron, should he become PM.

First, get stuck into the Eurozone crisis aiming for (in order of preference): (i) A strengthening of the Euro with greater sharing of economic sovereignty among Eurozone members (but with the UK left on one side); or (ii) An orderly removal of the weaker economies from the single currency.

Even on the Euro, the UK has some influence as an honest broker, given its position as an interested party, but not a full player. Cameron should adopt this role wholeheartedly – reminding British voters that the disorderly breakup of the single currency would be absolute disaster for the UK economy.

Second, recognise the severe dangers posed to the UK by a loss of cohesion in European societies.

It is tempting, but foolish, to see a breakdown in social order in Greece as only being a peripheral issue, or to fail to take seriously signs of a loss of trust between ethnic and religious groups across a number of European countries.

Maybe this is just a passing blip, but if I was Cameron I’d accept that it only makes sense to talk about a resilient nation within the context of a resilient European neighbourhood. We live in an era where social movements hop borders with ease. The last thing the UK needs is to get sucked into an era of riots, strikes and violence within its communities.

This may be a low probability/high impact threat to British national security, but we all remember a time when global economic collapse was regarded as so unlikely it wasn’t worth planning for, don’t we?

Third, pursue a vision of turning Europe into an outward-facing platform for managing global risks.

As Alex and I have argued, globalization is in the early stages of what is likely to prove a ‘long crisis’. The UK has made a one-way bet on a rules-based international order and we need to fight for our interests in this wager (even though meaningful progress on most issues is going to be hard to achieve).

The world is now shooting the rapids. The new government must be a clear and consistent voice arguing for Europeans to start looking outwards, making whatever contribution we can to charting a course through turbulent waters.

Another era of navel gazing is the last thing the EU can afford.

Fourth, accept that the development of a multi-layered Union is now inevitable, with the EU running at different speeds and on different tracks.

This could be good for the UK, if we: (i) don’t sulk on the sidelines; (ii) see that a distanced-but-engaged stance will often make us a more attractive partner (e.g. for the French, as they seek to balance German hegemony); (iii) take an extremely active leadership role on policy issues that matter most to the UK, compensating for times when we choose not to get involved.

Finally,  become an intelligent advocate for subsidiarity.

It should be absolutely clear that Europe is yet to work out which issues need to be managed at European, national, or more local levels. But, so far, the Eurosceptic position on this has won few friends, coming across as unconstructive and lacking nuance to many Europeans.

But that could change if Cameron is prepared to reframe Euroscepticism as an ongoing search for a more balanced, flexible and adaptable union between European nations.

Carefully tuned, that message could resonate well with at least some of our European partners, while also helping Cameron triangulate divergent camps at home, including the pro and anti-European factions on his own backbenches.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]