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A demented game of pass the debt: and the winner is the ECB

WITHIN the space of a week, this Government went the gamut of EU ambitions. It started by running up the white flag on getting its targeted €450m saving on bailout interest and finished by announcing that it hopes to get the ECB to agree to let us impose burden-sharing on senior bondholders in Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide.

I wish it well in its endeavours, but I would echo the Tanaiste's health warning: we cannot act unilaterally in this -- we need to convince others, namely the ECB.

This is all a very long way from the trips to Berlin and 'it's Labour's way or Frankfurt's way' quotes that a change in government would herald a cut in interest rates.

The whole saga does highlight the inequity of the treatment Ireland is receiving at the hands of some in the EU. I stress some, as we also have friends and supporters in Brussels and across Europe.

The longer the French and Germans delay the negotiations, the more we end up paying out to them. Is that how friends negotiate? Is it even a negotiation? The longer they keep us talking, the more it costs us. This is the most expensive chat-line in history.

It is made worse by Enda's seeming reluctance to travel to Paris and engage directly with President Sarkozy. Maybe this is due to him finally realising that the system is not just lop-sided: it is wholly skewed in favour of one side.

But there is something even worse that shows just how crazy the whole set-up has become. Greece and Portugal have borrowed money to send to us as part of our bailout package. Ireland and Portugal have borrowed money to send to Greece, while Ireland and Greece have borrowed money to send to the Portuguese.

The three countries are not only borrowing from each other and loaning to each other like some demented game of pass the parcel: they are all paying over the odds to enter the game while all the time knowing that the winners will be the French and German banks.

Debt is being piled upon debt and the capacity to trade and grow our way out of crisis is being steadily squeezed.

The markets and independent analysts across the globe view the situation as unsustainable. The interest demanded on Greek bonds is at an all-time high of over 18 per cent and Greece is now the most expensive country in the world to insure against default.

And, as if to even further stress the risks posed by Greece, Portugal and Ireland, a report from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has calculated the actual and potential exposure of banks in each country.

The BIS, which is effectively the central bankers' central bank, says that in our case, British banks are the most exposed, with a total of $194bn of actual and potential exposure. Next highest are the German banks with $158bn of total exposure, followed by the American banks with a total of $105bn. This American figure is important as the problems in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the EU are also theirs.

The situation is now so bad that some people in the German government are finally copping on that the current remedies will not work. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has been trying to convince the European Central Bank and fellow euro finance ministers that maturities on Greek bonds should be extended for seven more years. So far he does not seem to have convinced them.

Perhaps they see this is as a political fix to a more fundamental problem, but I have not seen them rushing to propose anything beyond telling the Greeks to suck it up.

The Greek situation could not only drag down Ireland and Portugal: it has the capacity to pull down the entire European financial and currency infrastructure, yet where is the sense of urgency and creativity?

It is not emerging from Frankfurt or Brussels nor is it coming from Merrion Street.

Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick East


Sunday Independent