x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Survival pushes ideology aside in this euro-zone crisis

Serious times require serious statesmen and women, and if the casual imagery that was on offer at the G8 summit is anything to go by, the world is still lacking that kind of leader.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

However hard most political leaders try, almost whatever they do in an attempt to look fashionable and plugged into the real lives of voters, it never seems to quite work. Whether it's stage-managed pictures of middle-aged politicians wobbling on bicycles at a European Union summit, or worse still, occasions where they try and look "casual" and get excited about football - as Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, and other leaders did during the recent G8 summit at Camp David - the imagery jars.

Somehow, we now expect our leaders to be sombrely dressed and getting down to some serious hard work if they have jet-setted off at our expense to a summit in some exotic place. But it is difficult to imagine Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin wearing open-necked shirts and posing for a round of high fives at the 1945 Yalta conference, which settled the shape of Europe for the next half century.

Serious times require serious statesmen and women, and if the casual imagery that was on offer at the G8 summit is anything to go by, the world is still lacking that kind of leader.

Back in 1979, during an earlier time of global economic contraction, the British prime minister James Callaghan discovered that his seeming insouciance towards a shivering, strike-bound Britain led to his denial of mounting economic and industrial chaos being paraphrased by one popular tabloid newspaper in the immortal line: "Crisis? What crisis?" Mr Callaghan had just returned from an IMF summit on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

Today's image-conscious politicians are more adept at avoiding such pitfalls, and yet as the G8 moved seamlessly to yet another European Union summit, the cries grow ever louder, in Europe at least, for the sort of dramatic intervention that gave us something as momentous as the Marshall Plan at the end of the Second World War.

In addition, there is an understanding elsewhere, and in the United States in particular, that President Barack Obama's massive fiscal stimulus programmes that lifted the economy out of recession are now threatened by a possible domino collapse of parts of the euro zone, beginning with Greece, progressing to Spain and Portugal and onwards to Italy.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that Mr Obama's domestic strategy owes at least something to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, that massive exercise in economic pump priming that lifted America out of the Great Depression and away from dustbowl economics.

This is precisely what is not on offer to beleaguered Greece, a country now hobbled for joining the euro zone when it patently made no economic sense to do so. For here is a country that was recruited to Europe's grand political project, and which is now being obliged to shrink its economy in order to pay off loans on which it increasingly seems to be prepared out of desperation to default.

The G8 summit talked grandly about the need for "economic growth". It may also have further isolated the German chancellor Angela Merkel who, with much of the German banking and political establishment, believes austerity has to be made to work to save the euro zone and re-engineer the economies of Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

And while the G8 members may have moved faster to set time-tables for military disengagement from the quagmire that is Afghanistan (principally because the newly elected French Socialist leader, Francois Hollande, is determined to have his forces out within a year), the elephant in the room remains. In the immortal words of the former US president Bill Clinton: "It's the economy, stupid." But it is the election of "pro-growth" Mr Hollande over "pro-austerity" Nicolas Sarkozy that is fast changing the political game in Europe - and moving the argument towards the left.

"The crucial question," says the British businessman John Stevens, "is will there soon be elections in Germany?" Mr Stevens, along with many euro-friendly observers, believes that the G8 summit didn't add up to much - although the belief that Europe's leaders are not going to allow the single currency to founder was enough by itself to enable the markets to pick themselves up.

"If the euro zone can be saved, it will be with a centre-left economic agenda," Mr Stevens says. Coming from a former British Conservative member of the European Parliament, that comment should give pause for thought to some of his former allies in the governing Christian Democratic Party in Germany. And if Mr Stevens is right, then the next question becomes: which way will Germany's formidable chancellor, the real Iron Lady, turn next?

This month, Mrs Merkel's party went down in a crashing defeat at state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, dropping by nearly 10 percentage points in the polls, which led to her brutal dismissal of her local party leader, Norbert Roettgen. While Mrs Merkel has been driven by her conservative reflexes to limit what Germany is prepared to do to rescue the Greeks - despite German banks playing their role in encouraging Greece's penury - she also knows her liberal Freedom Democratic Party coalition partners could decide to change allegiance.

And Mrs Merkel, despite her reputation for being utterly unbending, has shown herself to be pretty adept at performing speedy U-turns. Once upon a time, she and her party used to be adamantly in favour of nuclear power - but she moved just as smartly away following the nuclear disaster in Japan. Today, you would never know that Mrs Merkel once thought the future was nuclear, just as it may be possible one day soon not to recall a time when the same politician was fully committed to an economic growth strategy for Europe.

As a reporter, I have covered enough summits from continent to continent to be more or less immune to the blandishments of the hordes of government or institutional press officers, with their warm words and exaggerated claims. But as the summit caravan moved this week from America to Europe, there are at last some distinct signs that global political leaders now understand that the time for talking is over, and the time for action is upon them. For sure, that process has been given a boost by the election in France and the almost unexpected triumph of a mild-mannered, diligent socialist over an exuberant and colourful incumbent.

Elections, or the threat of elections, concentrate the minds of politicians like nothing else. And as with Mr Obama, who can see that Mitt Romney's Republicans have failed to fashion a believable alternative, so too with the austerity brigade in Europe.

In Britain, a country outside the euro zone but heavily dependent on the single market and trade with Europe, austerity is now widely held to be responsible for a second dip into recession. Mr Cameron's coalition government finds itself becoming more and more unpopular. In Germany, where wages have risen slowly for a decade, "more of the same" is hardly going to be a vote-winning slogan for Mrs Merkel - especially if she is driven to an early election by her fleeing coalition partners.

As ever, though, Europe's and America's political leaders are finding their agendas shaped by events, and events that are moving incredibly quickly.

Mark Seddon is a former UN correspondent for Al Jazeera English and a UK political commentator