What's Happened To The Eurozone?


It might have been the most notorious public exhortation to quieten down since Hugo Chávez was told by Spain’s King Juan Carlos to "shut your trap" during the 1997 Ibero-American summit in Santiago. (That dispute capped off a colourful geopolitical discussion that included Chávez’s description of Spanish PM José María Azanar as a man who was "less human than snakes".)

Compared to all that, the reports regarding the Franco-British discussion at last week’s latest European debt summit — which France’s Le Figaro says led to an "exchange of fire" between Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron — pale somewhat.

But the European press agrees that the discussions between Cameron and the easily angered Sarkozy do seem to have led to the latter politely asking the former to belt up.

"You tell us you hate the Euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings", Sarkozy allegedly told Cameron during a discussion of financial regulations. The exchange came right in the middle of a week where British conservatives again debated whether or not to quit the European Union altogether. And the clash led some of the more excitable Fleet Street organs to predict a return to the battlefield.

"Europe at war 2018", splashed the Daily Mail, spinning a grim scenario in which the continent is returned to the "killing grounds of Belgium", with France attacking Britain as revenge for the financial crisis.

No other outlet on the continent was prepared to join the Daily Mail in printing apocalyptic fantasies about Europe’s future. But there is concern elsewhere that that Europe’s nations are retreating to their "tribes", Argentina’s La Nación opines.

The Buenos Aires daily commented on Sunday that the traditional PR "happy families" shots of European leaders have never seemed faker than at the conclusion of last Thursday’s all-night EU meeting.

"Maybe [the photos]aim to exorcise the spectre of a new European explosion, like that of which Sarkozy warned of a few days ago", writes La Nación. "Never have divisions seemed greater on the old continent: What is indispensible for Germany is not practical for Greece, the maximum limit for Slovakia is the minimum limit for Spain."

In a time of recession, no one wants to look like they’re acting too altruistically as voters are suffering at home. That’s especially true for Great Britain, outside the Eurozone but containing one Europe’s two financial capitals — with its banks more liable to Greek debts than German banks, and with several London hedge funds making profits speculating on continental exposure to Greece debt.

Portuguese business daily Journal de Negócios picks up a speech that Cameron gave indicating he’s batting for the interests of the City at the European debt summits. "We’re under constant attack of the leaders in Brussels", Cameron said, adding that he was out to protect London, which is "centre of financial services in Europe" but facing decisions from Brussels that might "advantage Paris or Frankfurt".

What he was actually talking about was the idea of a European Tobin tax on financial transactions, intended to slow down high-speed, high-volume financial market speculation. Paris and Berlin have been keen on the idea for weeks now, but London is determined to use all its remaining continental influence to sink the idea.

The Financial Times Deutschland says German MPs echoed Sarkozy in reaction to the European summit last week. The parliamentary leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Volker Kauder, says Britain must commit to a European tax on financial transactions, given the idea "cannot be implemented worldwide".

The paper says Kauder is as fed up with Cameron’s government as Sarkozy: he told reporters in Berlin late last week that he sometimes listens to the proposed solutions from Britain to the finance crisis while "grinding his teeth".

But by irritating leaders on the continent, Cameron’s likely to have recaptured the initiative at home, argues Spanish online daily El Confidencial.

The paper leads with a photo of Cameron and Julia Gillard at CHOGM last week, before going on to argue that the latest back-and-forth in Brussels will do little to resolve Cameron’s difficulties regarding his government’s European policy in the long term.

"When David Cameron was elected leader he promised to the faithful to ‘win back the powers transferred to Brussels’. When he formed his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he signed off on ‘examining the balance [in view of]the competences of Brussels’. Today, he can’t fulfil either of those promises", says El Confidencial’s analysis.

The daily sees the paradox as having occurred because of Cameron’s coalition with the "most pro-European" of all the British parties, the Liberal Democrats. With both parties unpopular due to spending cuts, neither wants to risk an early election. But nor can Cameron afford to "ignore the wishes of his [majority anti-European]party", because his authority within the party is as low as his poll standings.

This paradox has left the "European question camped on the doorstep of number 10", with the record 81 Tory rebels who voted to bring on a referendum on Britain’s EU membership last week all set to keep campaigning on the issue, says El Confidencial.

Up to 70 per cent of British voters want Britain to quit Brussels: it’s seen as a synonym for bureaucratic incompetence and many believe the interests of France and Germany prevail to the islanders’ detriment.

But the country in which Brussels is located, Belgium, last week commemorated a historic anniversary largely unnoticed, even as the world’s press camped out for the Eurozone debt summit.

Francophone Belgian daily Le Soir reveals that Belgium has now been 500 days without a government, after continuing language disputes between French and Dutch speakers meant that no majority government could be formed.

The paper provides figures that will gladden the hearts of anti-government libertarians and anarchists alike. The Brussels paper says 1,110,100 trains have been on time since Belgium has been without a government — and only 189,603 have been delayed.

The number of Belgian marriages is still far higher than the number of divorces as well, says Le Soir.

And most strikingly? Even as governments across Europe have failed to find a solution to the post-crisis unemployment problem, "Belgium has 31,507 fewer unemployed citizens" than when it last had a government 505 days ago.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.