Opinion

Hugo Dixon

West mustn’t rush into Syrian conflict

Hugo Dixon
Aug 27, 2013 09:49 UTC

The drumbeats of a new Western military intervention in the Middle East are beating louder and louder. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday it was “undeniable” that chemical weapons had been used in an attack last week in Damascus. Meanwhile, the British foreign secretary said the UK and its allies could launch a military intervention without the approval of the United Nations. This is because a U.N. resolution authorising an attack on Syria would almost certainly be blocked by Russia.

The desire to do something to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime is understandable, particularly after last week’s gas attack. But the West still mustn’t rush in. Before it takes any military action, it needs to present compelling evidence that Assad is the culprit. Any intervention should also be a specific response to the gas attack rather than suck the West into this ghastly civil war.

Many people will argue that we already have the evidence we need to know that Assad is guilty. The weapons were used in a part of Damascus where his troops had been vainly trying to dislodge rebels. Assad has a big stash of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them. What’s more, he refused to give U.N. investigators immediate access to the site – seemingly the action of a man who wants to cover up a crime rather than that of an innocent who has been slandered.

This is all strong circumstantial evidence. But none of it amounts to proof. That matters because we have seen dossiers sexed up before – notably the one used by Tony Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq. It also matters because, as with Iraq, any intervention in Syria will probably have to be undertaken without U.N. approval. It is not in the West’s interests to undermine the U.N.’s authority any further. Just look at its intervention in Libya in 2011, which went beyond what the U.N. authorised. Russia has used that as an excuse to block U.N. resolutions on Syria.

While the West should not deny itself the possibility of going outside the U.N. framework in exceptional circumstances, the circumstances do need to be truly exceptional. In this case, that at least means having hard evidence and presenting it to world opinion – so that all but the most bone-headed will agree that Russia is willfully denying the truth if it vetoes a U.N. resolution.

EU ripe for single-market push

Hugo Dixon
Jul 29, 2013 09:25 UTC

The European Union is ripe for a big, new single-market push. Deepening the single market would do a lot for the EU’s sagging competitiveness. Vested interests may be opposed. But a drive to open up markets would help the euro zone periphery and could keep Britain in the EU – killing two birds with one stone.

It may seem odd to be calling for more work on the single market. Did the Treaty of Rome not promise the freedom of movement of goods and services throughout what is now the EU all the way back in 1957? Did the EU not complete the single market in 1992? And wasn’t a directive pledging free trade in services passed in 2006?

Well, yes and no. Free trade is not just about lifting intra-EU tariffs which were, indeed, abolished decades ago. It is also about dealing with a mass of national red tape, which protects local industries from competition. Such rules are especially prevalent in services industries.

How to legitimise EU: decentralise

Hugo Dixon
Jul 22, 2013 08:41 UTC

The European Union is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This is evidenced in a decline in support for the EU among citizens in pretty much every member country. The most extreme manifestation is in the UK, where pressure is mounting to quit the EU.

There are two main schools of thought about how to restore trust in Brussels. One is to increase the direct say citizens have over what the European Commission does – say by giving yet more power to the European Parliament or by having a directly elected European Commission president. The other is to stop Brussels interfering in things best left to nation states.

The former school of thought is based on a misconception. The EU does not have a demos: few Europeans feel European rather than Italian, German, French or whatever. Witness the low turnout for European Parliament elections. Trying to construct a democracy without a demos is artificial and so won’t solve the legitimacy problem.

City should fight Brexit

Hugo Dixon
Jul 15, 2013 09:24 UTC

It is becoming increasingly likely that the UK will have a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union. It’s not just that David Cameron, the prime minister, has promised to hold such a vote by 2017 assuming he is re-elected. The drumbeats from the opposition Labour Party that it too would hold a plebiscite are becoming louder. Opinion polls show that Britons would currently vote to quit.

Of the many industries that would be hurt by such a “Brexit”, the City of London is the most prominent. The damage would range from moderate to severe, depending on the extent of the amputation.

The City is not just the UK’s financial capital. It is also Europe’s financial capital and vies with New York to be the world’s financial capital. The UK accounts for 74 percent of the EU’s foreign-exchange trading and 40 percent of global trading in euros; 85 percent of the EU’s hedge-fund assets; 42 percent of its private-equity funds; and half of pension assets and international insurance premiums, according to a recent report by TheCityUK, which represents the UK’s financial services industry.

How the euro zone can muddle through

Hugo Dixon
Jul 8, 2013 09:27 UTC

Three years on, debate still rages over what is to blame for the euro crisis and what to do about it. Meanwhile, large parts of the zone are in a deep recession and the talents of a generation of young people are being wasted.

In looking at what went wrong, some point to the profligacy of borrowers while others stress the design flaws in the system. Yet others pin the blame on how the crisis has been managed. There are still others who think that the euro zone is a victim of a credit crunch that began in the United States.

There is some truth in all these explanations. While the credit crunch did trigger the crisis, it exposed a host of problems that had been masked by a decade of easy growth. Peripheral countries had grown uncompetitive as a result of rising wages. Often there was corruption and excessive debt, while anti-competitive practices that suited vested interests kept productivity low. Almost everywhere, governments ran unsustainably generous welfare states.

Financial reform must carry on

Hugo Dixon
Jul 1, 2013 08:20 UTC

After six years of crisis, much progress has been made in fixing the financial system. There was, for example, a landmark European Union deal last week to make creditors rather than taxpayers foot the bill for bust banks. But there’s a huge job still to do.

In the years running up to the crisis, the financial system ran amok on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the long litany of problems was a clutch of distorted incentives, which encouraged banks to take excessive risks by rewarding success but not punishing failure. These heads-I-win-tails-you-lose incentives skewed the behaviour of individuals, banks and the entire system.

A crackdown on bankers’ pay is starting to deal with individual risk-taking. Compensation can be clawed back from financiers whose bets ultimately turn sour. There are also plans, mainly in Europe, to pay a chunk of bankers’ compensation in “bail-in bonds” – which will get wiped out or turned into lowly valued shares if a bank fails. That should get bankers to pay more attention to risk.

Italy’s Letta makes best of bad job

Hugo Dixon
Jun 24, 2013 08:26 UTC

Italy’s new prime minister, Enrico Letta, is making the best of a bad job. After February’s inconclusive election, it looked like Italy’s dysfunctional political system might drag the country further into the abyss. There was a risk that nobody would be able to form a government, new elections would be called and that even these would end in a stalemate.

In the end, a grand coalition was formed involving Letta’s centre-left Democrats, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL and Mario Monti’s centrist group. Putting together such a coalition was itself an achievement – given that the Democrats and Berlusconi hate one another and that the Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, refused to make deals with anybody.

Even after the coalition was formed – largely as a result of pressure from Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s respected octogenarian president – there wasn’t much hope that it could achieve anything. But Letta has been quietly getting on with reform, as I discovered when I spent a few days in Italy last week. Part of the explanation is that he is an intelligent, modest, consensus-builder rather than a charismatic figure with a big ego.

Turkey’s economy is vulnerable

Hugo Dixon
Jun 17, 2013 10:06 UTC

Tayyip Erdogan seems to like the concept of “choking” things. At the weekend, Turkey’s prime minister sent riot police into an Istanbul park with tear gas and water cannons to clear out the protestors. A week earlier, he had threatened to “choke” an alleged “high-interest-rate lobby” of speculators who wanted to push interest rates up and suffocate the economy.

Erdogan’s harsh actions against protestors and harsh words against investors could backfire economically. The country depends on foreign investors to fund its big current account deficit. If they turn tail in response to the mounting unrest, interest rates will indeed have to rise.

The protests which began two weeks ago over Tayyip Erdogan’s alleged authoritarianism, triggered by the prime minister’s insistence on bulldozing one of Istanbul’s few public parks, initially alarmed investors. The stock market plunged, the lira fell and government bond yields spiked. Then, after the central bank intervened in the foreign exchange market and Erdogan offered concessions last week, investors calmed down.

Euro zone mustn’t flunk bank cleanup

Hugo Dixon
Jun 10, 2013 08:31 UTC

One reason the euro zone is in such a mess is that it hasn’t had the courage to clean up its banks. The United States gave its lenders a proper scrubbing, followed by recapitalisation, in 2009. By contrast, the euro zone engaged in a series of half-hearted stress tests that missed many of the biggest banking problems such as those in Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.

In recent years, the zone has started to address these problems on a piecemeal basis. But it is still haunted by zombie banks, which are not strong enough to support an economic recovery.

The European Central Bank now has a golden opportunity to press the reset button in advance of taking on the job of supervisor in mid-2014. It mustn’t flunk the cleanup.

Arming Syrian rebels fraught with risk

Hugo Dixon
Jun 3, 2013 09:04 UTC

The UK, France and maybe America are edging towards a policy of arming Syria’s “moderate” rebels if planned peace talks with the Assad regime don’t produce a breakthrough. The idea would be to tilt the civil war in favour of moderates and against both Assad’s Iranian-backed regime and al Qaeda-style jihadists. But the scheme, while superficially attractive, is fraught with risk.

The West’s three nuclear powers clearly don’t have much appetite for intervention in Syria. Nobody is pushing for an Iraqi or Afghan-style invasion. There is also precious little desire to impose a Libyan-style no-fly zone – not least because it would be impossible to get United Nations’ authority for such a policy given Russia’s steadfast support for the Assad regime.

The West is anyway struggling to clarify why it should get involved in this increasingly grisly sectarian war. Syria doesn’t have much oil or gas, unlike Libya and Iraq. Nor is Assad threatening the West with al Qaeda-style attacks. It could even be argued, on the basis of realpolitik, that it could be in the West’s interests if Sunni jihadists and the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis exhausted each other in an orgy of mutual destruction.