A ‘Grexit’ could finally sink the euro – so beware of Greeks bearing threats

THIS is an election year like no other, few can dodge its impact and, whoever wins, most voters will probably feel they’ve lost out.

Because, like a nasty rash, polling fever is erupting almost everywhere and what’s at stake isn’t so much who governs where next, but whether the world plunges into the financial abyss again.

In Britain the only certainty about what will happen in the general election on May 7 is uncertainty, though I have a sneaking suspicion Squire Cameron won’t be handing over the keys to 10 Downing Street.

Why? Because there’ll be what veteran American pollsters wryly recall as the ‘Richard Nixon Gambit’, an event from the annals of politicking gimmickry and the 1960 White House race, squeakily shaded by John F. Kennedy.

Too close to call, the Democrats stooped to a now legendary low in black propaganda by releasing an image of Nixon looking sweaty and shifty behind his grizzled five o’clock shadow, alongside the headline: ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’

NIXON NIXED: The ad showing a shady Richard Nixon that tipped the 1960 US election JFK's way

NIXON NIXED: The ad showing a shady-looking Richard Nixon that tipped the 1960 US election JFK’s way

The stunt resonated sufficiently for JFK to win literally by a whisker – 49.7% to 49.6% – after voters carried the scary vision of the then Republican Vice President into the polling booths.

Nine years later, and remembering to shave at least twice a day, Tricky Dicky won the presidency – perhaps proving you can’t keep a good crook down – only to resign in 1974 in the murk of the Watergate Scandal.

So, it would surprise me not one iota to see a montage of Ed Miliband snaps, showing the Labour leader at his geekiest worst, cropping up like Comparethemeerket telly ads.

The tacit caption would be: ‘Would you believe this nerd could lead the nation?’

Though Britain’s hustings might be enthralling to dedicated followers of UK politics, they are a parish-pump sideshow to elections globally – and I don’t mean in Burkina Faso, where President Blaise Compaoré is hotly tipped to get the heave-ho in November.

Nor am I referring to Israel’s March vote, which will predictably end in a cobbled-together Left or Right-wing coalition government, neither of which will bow to Palestinian blackmail and have imposed on them a factionalised, corruption-riddled Arab statelet that adamantly refuses to recognise its neighbour’s right to exist.

And forget the polls in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, which sully the name of democracy. Ditto Estonia, Finland and Poland, where properly constituted elections should hardly cause a ripple on the Richter scale of political earthquakes.

No, the fun – if that’s not too sardonic a description – is in the European Union’s Club Med nations, beginning next Sunday in Greece, the so-called ‘sick man of Europe’ (well, considerably more bilious compared to the ailing rest).

CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: Alex Tsipras (left), head of Greece’s Syriza bloc, demands debt relief to relieve his nation’s plight…or else

Because if a bunch of rebel populists called Syriza, who make the Chinese Communist politbureau look like Young Conservatives, the flaking euro is in for a further buffeting, one which – this time – could actually prelude the first exit of a member state from the Eurozone.

A bloc of far-Left hardliners led by neo-Marxist Che Guevara fan, Alexis Tsipras, the thrust of Syriza’s manifesto is simple: ‘Stop austerity – or we’ll stop paying our debts’, beginning with the instalment of €6.7-billion due to the European Central Bank (ECB) in July.

Unless you’re an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bean-counter, it’s a difficult to gauge just how much Greece owes creditors and what interest it’s cranking up. But terms like ‘colossal’ and ‘humungous’ are understatements and, as one economist noted, ‘At the current rate of pay-down, it’ll 130 years before they return to where they were in 2008.’

How a nation that produced arithmetical geniuses such as Pythagoras, Archimedes and Euclid got itself into such a mega-mess – or managed to flannel its way into the Eurozone in the first place – is no longer the issue.

With unemployment rocketing, the prospect of triple-dip deflation and Greece’s economy screwed to the floor by the ‘Troika’ – that’s the IMF, ECB and European Union, otherwise known as Greater Deutschland – Tsipras is demanding a 50% write-off its debts, just as the international community let Germany get away with in 1953.

For the record, deflation is a mixed blessing. In the UK, where inflation has fallen to 0.5%, courtesy of falling oil, food and commodity prices, consumer spending power is boosted. In contrast, what it means for the Eurozone is rising joblessness, stagnant wages, weak consumption and an inexorable slide into deflation.

POKER FACE: Germany's Merkel fears that a 'Grexit' would be contagious and infect other Club Med states

POKER FACE: But Germany’s Merkel fears that a ‘Grexit’ would be contagious and infect other Club Med states

Meanwhile, despite lame messages from Chancellor Angela Merkel about wanting to keep Greece in the club – which chimes with what Syriza claims it wants – behind the scenes an ultra-high-stakes game of diplomatic poker is being played, with many German politicians refusing to blink first.

‘We are past the days when we still have to rescue Greece,’ insists Michael Fuchs, parliamentary leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “The situation has completely changed from three years ago. Greece is no longer systemically relevant for the euro.’

In fact, it was recently revealed that in 2011 Germany offered Greece a ‘friendly’ return to the drachma, the so-called ‘Grexit’ option. However, Merkel had an attack of the jitters when it became clear Spain and Italy would be mired by contagion from it.

Notwithstanding great strides the Spanish and, to a lesser extent, the Italians have made in putting their houses into better financial shape, with both nations also facing elections in 2015, many voters are looking to see what happens in Athens before they decided which way to jump.

The storm clouds are certainly gathering in Spain, where the Left-wing upstarts of Podemos (‘We Can’), who are allies of Syriza, are currently leading the polls on an anti-corruption, anti-austerity ticket.

Which is why Merkel fears a domino effect across the Club Med if Greece defaults on its IOUs, starts afresh with a new drachma and its economy shows signs of revival.

Because, however tentatively it finds its newly-liberated feet, the Greeks will offer an example to others stretched on the German-imposed financial rack to do likewise.

And the lure of a born-again peseta or lira – plus the freedom of nations to structure their own destiny – might be too strong to resist.

So watch this space…2015 could be the year that reshapes the future of the Eurozone.

 

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The curious EU ‘club’ that rewards failure and punishes success

WINSTON Churchill once described Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ and today he might well have said the same about the European Union.

Because, nothing is ever quite what it seems in the Alice Through the Looking-glass world of Brussels, where transparency is as rare as hens’ teeth.

Far from being a fraternity of hail fellow well met, the whole edifice is riven with self-interest, Machiavellian infighting and coded language so inscrutable, either its meaning gets lost in translation or the message it conveys depends on whose ears it falls on.

There are, in fact, two EUs: the theoretical club, driven by dreamers with a vision of a United States of Europe, where all citizens are equal and peaceable; then there’s the actual one, where the vested interests of the kingpins – Germany, Britain, France, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Spain – rule the roost and call the shots.

So don’t mess with the German auto industry, literally the engine of its economy. No tinkering, either, with France’s agrarian follies, hence the farce of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, whereby French farmers get paid absurd sums to play with their boules.

Italy’s fashion sector is similarly ring-fenced and Spain’s pot pourri of industries, ranging from tourism to wine to olive oil to banking and construction, earn it a free pass.

And then there’s Britain, the globe’s financial epicentre, but semi-detached from Europe by the world’s biggest anti-tank ditch and full of idiosyncrasies, like driving on the wrong side of the road.

The EU considers Brits its awkward squad; free-market, anti-protectionists, who demand answers to commonsensical questions snotty Europrats ignore…like why the European Court of Auditors last week refused to sign off Brussels’ accounts for 19th successive time and why there’s a £5.5-billion black hole in this year’s £117-billion spending.

Which is why the latest brouhaha between London and Brussels smacks of pure hypocrisy on the EU rule-makers’ part.

Because the UK chose not to inflict upon itself the masochism of the dysfunctional Euro – along with a paralysed European Central Bank – by injecting cash into its economy via quantative easing (QE), it has emerged from the 2008/9 financial crisis faster and stronger than the Eurozone nations.

Though by no means out of the financial excrement, unemployment in Britain is a fraction of Spanish, French and Italian levels, and the Coalition government – give or take a Lib-Dem – is far more pro-enterprise than anywhere in the still-floundering EU.

EURO MELTDOWN: As the EU struggles, Britain pays a high price for controlling its own destiny - and currency

EURO MELTDOWN: As the EU struggles, Britain pays a high price for controlling its own destiny – and currency

That, in itself, should be an object lesson to Brussels in can-do economic competence, not the £1.7-billion penalty imposed on the UK for outperforming its EU partners since 1995.

The surcharge – which factors £7-billion into Britain’s GDP gleaned from the immoral earning of prostitution and drug pushing – comes on top of the country’s net contribution to the EU budget, predicted to be around £10-billion for 2014.

Clearly, ladies of the night and spliff vendors should spend more time off the streets, since their efforts, while welcome in some quarters, aren’t in the national interest.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron is righteously indignant over what’s described in bland, EU-speak as ‘a correction to Britain’s contribution’.

The government of Greece – the Eurozone’s basket case – feels similarly narked, since it must cough up hundreds of millions it hasn’t got to prop up powerhouses like Germany.

In Britain’s case it was given until December 1 to pay or face a £41-million fine, plus punitive interest of £2.3-million a day or 52% per annum on the £1.7-billion.

Never mind Wonga.com, according to one seething Tory MP, such usury would make ‘the most predatory payday loan-shark blush.’

So Chancellor George Osborne was despatched to Brussels on Friday on a damage-limitation mission, after Cameron said he would not pay the ‘completely unacceptable’ bill, warning it would reduce the chances of the UK staying in the EU.

Some kind of iffy creative accountancy has now been cobbled, with Osborne claiming the amount has been reduced by half, interest charges axed and the UK can stage-pay the outstanding £850-million next year.

However, what the waffle doesn’t address is why the UK was saddled with the burden in the first place.

This latest spat comes at a moment when Cameron plans to outline proposals to cap immigration from Europe, possibly by introducing an Australian-style point system to deter benefit-scroungers or demand that migrants have a job offer and, if not, the funds to support themselves for three months until they find work.

SHOWING THE WAY? German Chancellor Merkel makes her point - literally! - UK Premier Cameron

SHOWING THE WAY? German Chancellor Merkel makes her point – quite literally! – to UK Premier Cameron

It’s an issue that runs straight into another Brussels’ brick wall, but one which Cameron is tailoring to woo Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who desperately wants the UK in the Union and faces her own problems over unfettered immigration.

However, the runes on both contentious matters directly affecting Britain – the ‘correction fee’ and curbing incomers – make unpleasant reading on both sides of the Channel.

While wriggle room may have been found to reduce the price Britain must pay for its success, Merkel is under pressure from Brussels not to compromise on the free movement of peoples, a pillar of EU statism.

This was highlighted by the influential political magazine, Der Spiegel, last week, which claimed Mutti – as Merkel is affectionately known in Germany – was prepared to accept a British bye-bye, the so-called ‘Brexit’ option, from the EU.

However, as I said, much can be lost in the translation. That’s why sources close to the German leader quickly pointed out that she considers Brexit ‘möglich’, which means ‘possible’ and she fears it, because she distrusts the profligate France and wants Britain to remain her partner.

With UKIP’s anti-European mavericks and Conservative Eurosceptics rumbling with discontent, Cameron is stuck between a similar rock and hard place.

Despite promising an in-out referendum on the EU in 2017 if he’s re-elected next May and his own, declared intention to campaign to stay in, the Prime Minister is likely to face a tough job convincing a British electorate increasing hostile to Brussels to trust his judgement.

Rightly, they pose the question: if the EU isn’t for its people, what is it for?

For the sake of progress, the EU must junk Juncker’s presidential bid

SCANNING the likely runners in the forthcoming European Union presidential stakes, I was suddenly distracted by the question: which animal would best symbolise the EU.

After all, America’s political parties long ago adopted creatures as quirky symbols – the Democratic donkey seen as smart and brave, the Republican elephant strong and dignified.

Many countries also have beasts they regard as emblematic…Britain the bulldog, France a cockerel and Russia a bear.  So I set my mind to choosing one that captured the essence of the EU and initially seized on the camel.

After much deliberation, though, I sacked it on the grounds it would give Europhiles the hump, despite my belief a camel encapsulated typical EU ‘group think’: a horse designed by committee.

The idea of a hippo briefly appealed, since it spends most of its time wallowing in muddy self-gratification or underwater, oblivious to criticism.

Then – voila! – the rhino raised its monstrous head. Thick-skinned, brutish and easily nettled, it’s also short-sighted but blessed with an acute sense of smell to alert it to threats.

Besides, the comparison between the lumbering ungulate and today’s newly-elected EU assembly seemed apt, since MEPs are behaving in rather rhino-ish ways in their hostility to the heads of Europe’s 28 member states, each of whom appoints a commissioner to Brussels.

The rumpus concerns who replaces José Manuel Barroso as President in November, but, more significantly, who has the right to appoint a successor.

FACE FROM THE PAST: UK Premier, David Cameron, doesn't want Juncker as the next EU Commission leader

FACE FROM THE PAST: UK Premier, David Cameron, doesn’t want Juncker as the next EU Commission leader

All eleven, previous bosses owed their jobs to accommodations struck between national leaders.

Now, however, the largest party grouping of MEPs claims it is entitled it to decide who rules the EU roost, even if the 2008 Lisbon Treaty simply say its views should be ‘taken into account’.

Certainly, giving power to elected representatives would be a step in a democratic direction for an institution not famed as egalitarian.

But therein lies the rub. The main clique is the European Peoples’ Party (EEP) – an amalgam of centre-Right democrats, which David Cameron’s Conservatives quit in protest at its archly federalist tendencies – and their preferred candidate is Jean-Claude Juncker.

The problem is the former Luxemburg Prime Minister is something of a Marmite Man, admired and abhorred in equal measure.

It is not simply his messianic belief in the EU morphing into a United States of Europe that riles detractors; it’s rather that he’s the diplomatic equivalent of a Sherman tank, crushing dissenting voices and taking no prisoners.

And the nation at which Juncker targets most of his spleen is the UK, as his vitriolic speech to the 2005 EU parliament demonstrated.

In it, he singled out ‘Anglo-Saxon villainy’, asserting that any country standing in the way of ‘the future superstate’ was inspired by petty, squalid and immoral interests, while being ‘deaf to historic destiny’.

It was a reckless tirade, all the more stupid since it ignored every member state leader’s declared priority to pursue their ‘national interest.’

But Juncker has a reputation for loose-tongue faux pas – especially when primed by alcohol – never more tellingly than with his remark, ‘When the going gets tough, you have to lie.’

This notorious one-liner came in the wake of his forced resignation as Luxemburg’s premier, after an inquiry concluded that he turned a blind eye to rogue elements of the Grand Duchy’s security service spying on whoever they liked.

CHEERS TO JUNCKER: German's Merkel wants the Luxemburger to lead the new Commission

CHEERS TO JUNCKER: German’s Merkel wants the Luxemburger to lead the new Commission

Meanwhile, there’s also the taint of hypocrisy in Juncker being the first ‘chosen one’ – spitzenkandidat – from the floor of the EU parliament, since his take on democracy can verge on Stalinist.

When the French and Dutch famously voted against a European constitution, Juncker led calls for them to vote and vote again, until they bowed to his will. As it transpired, the Lisbon Treaty put paid to rebellion, since no member state bothered to hold it to a referendum, apart from Ireland, which was pressured into overturning an initial ‘No’ vote at the second time of asking.

Dubbed ‘a face from the past’ by Cameron, the wave of popularity that promised to sweep Juncker to the throne of Europe is now being undermined by many powerful voices, though Germany’s Angela Merkel remains a fervent fan.

However, that the largest bloc in the EU parliament lauds him is further testimony to its crass disregarded for the welling discontent fomenting across Europe.

In last month’s MEP elections, huge swathes of electors delivered a resounding message to the Brussels elite that they are riled to the point of revolt by the incompetence of EU decision-makers and, particularly, the impact of ill-conceived austerity.

As they voted far-Right and extreme Left in droves, Juncker’s vision of force-feeding more of the same, putrid medicine down their throats underlines the widening disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.

Cameron is clear he needs the Luxemburger like he yearns for a root canal filling minus anaesthetic. Others – particularly the reformist Dutch and Swedes – are similarly persuaded a Juncker presidency would be an unmitigated disaster and drive the electorate to further extremes.

The best-case scenario is that a compromise candidate is agreed between the national leaders and the EEP, so the name of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s moderate, centre-Left prime minister and Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law, is being loudly touted.

Whether common sense ever prevails where the EU is concerned is entirely another matter.

Q: So, where’s NATO when you actually need it? A: Not At The Office (note new name)

WAY back in the 1960s, there was a telly ad running on TV, guaranteeing that should any disaster befall your life, home, health, jewels or car, fear not…restitution was at hand.

‘Get the full strength of the insurance companies around you,’ was hardly a snappy slogan. However, even if it didn’t exactly catch the mood – like: ‘Don’t forget the fruit gums, Mum’ or ‘Go to work on an egg’ – it was an implied reminder of the perils that can afflict the uncovered (and I’m not referring to nudists).

In the then icy bite of the Cold War, insurance on an international scale was needed to safeguard the West’s wellbeing against the threat of Soviet expansion, so the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (a.k.a. NATO) was born.

The Russians countered with the Warsaw Pact and, for over three decades, a military stalemate existed, predicated on the tacit understanding that mutual nuclear annihilation was assured if ever World War III was sparked.

Though the Pact is dead, following the implosion of Soviet communism, NATO still exists, with some ex-Pact members even joining the now 28-nation alliance.

You’d imagine, then, that the small print in our insurance policy with the world’s premier military muscle would be vigilantly scrutinised right now, after Vladimir Putin’s Spetsnaz stormtroops invaded Ukraine and land-grabbed Crimea.

It isn’t. And the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, whereby the West and Russia agreed to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, isn’t worth the paper it’s scrawled on.

And, as regards the numerous NATO projects designed to forge closer ties with Kiev, aimed at beefing up Ukraine’s military capabilities in the event of attack, they don’t apparently to matter an iota, either.

NO FROM NATO: Designed to protect the West, the 28-member organisation has no contingency plan for Ukraine

NO FROM NATO: Designed to protect the West, the 28-member organisation has no contingency plan for Ukraine

This was made abundantly clear by US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who dismissed suggestions the alliance should do something – anything, even a slight rattle of its sabre – in response to Putin’s outrageous and unprovoked act of belligerence.

Nope, blithely stated the five-star general, his tailored ‘blues’ so overladen with ribbon it’s a wonder he can stand up straight. NATO has no contingency plan to deal with Russian thuggery. And even if there was one gathering dust somewhere in the organisation’s opulent Brussels HQ, it wouldn’t be adopted. Full point, as the Yanks would say.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to ask: what exactly does NATO stand for today…Not At The Office, perhaps? Because it sure seems to have passed the buck, as the Yanks would also say.

No-one is proposing the West and the rest actual go to war over Ukraine. But some true grit show of defiance – a tad more potent than the tut-tutting response that’s been the order of the day so far from the European Union – might just send a signal to Vlad The Invader enough is enough.

Small wonder former communist bloc countries, like Poland and the Baltic states which joined NATO for the protection it promised, are aghast at how supine the West’s military tiger is.

All this procrastination and lack of resolve must be music to Putin’s ears and grist to his mill of reconstituting the old Russian empire.

And, if anyone believes his incursion into Ukraine and annexing of Crimea are Vlad’s last territorial calculation, then welcome to Cloud Cuckoo Land and have a nice day.

FORWARD HO: Russian troops advance into Crimea, before the Ukraine province in annexed by Vladimir Putin

FORWARD HO: Russian troops advance into Crimea, before the Ukraine province in annexed by Vladimir Putin

Hence, his forces continue their intimidating war games along Ukraine’s border, while casting covetous glances at Moldova’s quirky, Russian-speaking enclave of Trans-Dniester, notorious for its chicken-smuggling industry (no, I kid you not; that’s its chief source of revenue).

But wait a mo’, you say. We are taking stern steps to punish Russia and curb any notions Putin has of further aggression.

And they’ve started…by freezing the assets of a half-dozen Kremlin apparatchiks you’ve never heard of, while expat oligarchs – like Roman Abramovitch – might be forced to hand back their Tesco loyalty cards.

We’ve even expelled Putin from the exclusive G8 club, which is as stinging a sanction as being blackballed by the Grand Order of Freemasons.

The only problem is the wannabe tsar isn’t quaking in his Timberland boots and billions of roubles mysteriously fled Moscow – to destinations unknown, but probably London – days before the infamous Crimea referendum saw the accommodating citizenry vote, almost unanimously, to re-join Mother Russia.

But diplomacy not NATO will rein in rapacious Putin, insists Barack Obama.

For once, however, in a passionate speech to the now G7 in Brussels last week, he sounded robustly presidential, shelving the ‘peacenik’ image embedded in his core, like Blackpool or Coney Island runs through a stick of rock candy.

After lambasting Russia, tellingly Obama tongue-lashed the EU’s timid stance against Putin and rapped Europe’s lamentable attitude to defence – particularly that of Germany – demanding a review of military spending ‘to examine whether everybody is chipping in.’

Whether or not NATO does what it says on the tin, the US now picks up 73 percent of its tab, so it’s not unreasonable for the President to ask (Angela Merkel in particular), ‘Show me the money.’

Obama even displayed some business acumen, suggesting a solution to economically moribund Europe’s reliance on Russian energy…by selling it America’s surplus of gas and petroleum it’s eked out from fracking.

Obliging, he’s even willing to lay on a fleet of colossal tankers to transport the fuel, rather like the WW2 Atlantic convoys.

After all, what are friends for, maybe the President added.

For his part, poker-faced Putin isn’t blinking an eyelid, but spending $400-billion on refurbishing his rust-bucket navy and quarter-mastering his armed forces with the latest lethal gizmos, which begs the question: Why?

He must be betting, too, he’ll continue running rings round Obama in diverse arenas of conflict like the Middle East, where he’s just signed a contract with Egypt to supply $2-billion of ordnance, after the US refused – on ethical grounds – to replenish the country’s military stock.

As for NATO, in Russia’s evaluation, it’s a paper tiger or whatever is the equivalent of a busted flush in the Cyrillic alphabet.

 

 

Stop bleating about being bugged – everyone’s playing the spy game

I SPY with my little eye somebody beginning with M. Or, more currently, it should be: I hear with my big ear someone called Merkel gabbling on her cellphone – quaintly known to Germans as a ‘handy’ – and have done for yonks.

Handy is an apt word if you’re an eavesdropper from the US National Security Agency, the NSA now unofficially renamed Nosy Snoopers on Anyone, as they cock a snook (or spook) at friend and foe alike, all treated without fear or favour.

In almost any other context such equanimity would be laudable. In this case it’s upset the balance of trust that existed between allies and prompted a storm of diplomatic outrage that shows no sign of abating.

It’s always been a given that all’s fair in spying and prying where enemies collide. Hence the lack of uproar when the Russians were said to have presented ‘Trojan Horse’ gifts of USB flash-drive pens and cellphone chargers to delegates at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg that relayed info back to the Kremlin.

But, scuppering your friends? How low can the spooks stoop, even if it’s only commercial, industrial and financial espionage? Answer: No-one’s off limits.

NOT SO HANDY: Angela Merkel is raging over the NSA's hacking of her cellphone, know in German as a 'handy'

HANDY HORROR: Angela Merkel is raging over reports that the NSA hacked her cellphone, know in German as a ‘handy’

Small wonder German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is incandescent with rage that the NSA nobbled her Nokia – she’s now swapped it for a more secure Blackberry Z10 – while thunderclaps of diplomatic indignation have been resounding across Europe.

Thanks to whistleblower and former CIA contractor, Ed Snowden, currently dossing down out of CIA clutches in Moscow, it appears the good ole boys at America’s ace electronic surveillance squad, in Fort Mead, Maryland, have been scanning heaven-knows-how-many telecons and emails across swathes of Western Europe and the Americas.

Francois Hollande, the French President, was incredulous when told the NSA secretly monitored 70 million calls, texts and emails made in France; Premier Mariano Rajoy was similarly gobsmacked to learn 60 million were trawled in Spain; and the Italians choked on their cannelloni at news of 46 million intercepts.

The leaders of Brazil and Mexico were also furious at reports they were victims.

In fact, the only national leader not to quibble his handpiece was hacked is Prime Minister David Cameron, presumably on the basis that Britain’s GCHQ has a mutual, back-scratching deal with the Americans.

Just for the record the mindboggling tallies I’ve listed cover only one month of NSA snooping…between December, 2012, and this January, although it was heartening to know the listeners had the good grace to take off December 30, New Year’s Day and January 2.

Using software appropriately branded ‘Boundless Informant’, the NSA apparently noted where calls were made, the series numbers of handsets, SIM card data and duration of calls.

It makes allegations against former Murdoch newspapers’luminaries, including ex-News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – on trial at the Old Bailey, in London, on charges variously related to hacking voice-mail messages and corruption – seem playground frolics by comparison.

Meanwhile, according to Glenn Greenwald – the Brazil-based US journalist, who has worked with Snowden to publish the spying revelations – though call content was not recorded, intercepts included intrusion in personal information through internet browsers, emails and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA's headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA’s headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

As the evidence stacks up, President Obama has been forced into humiliating apologies to his nominal pals, telling Merkel, ‘Your phone isn’t being tapped and will not be.’

In subtle contrast, he is said to have told Cameron, ‘Your phone has never been tapped, isn’t being tapped and will never be’, which clearly indicates America’s commander-in-chief knew his German counterpart had been a target, if no longer.

So, despite attempts to paint Obama as an ‘ignorant party’ to his eavesdroppers’ operations, he can’t wriggle off the hook and blame his predecessor, President G ‘Dubya’ Bush, for authorising the earwigging in the first place. Contrary to Hollywood myth, information gathering of this type – codenamed COMINT (communications intelligence) – at this level isn’t some ‘black op’ handled covertly by a rogue outfit working outside its remit.

Strangely, US spooks are unrepentant over this furore. Even more bizarrely, their cloak-and-laptop buddies across Europe don’t seem particularly fazed either, even if their political masters are in a blue funk, or feign as much.

Because, the simple truth is everyone’s at it, not just the usual suspects, principally China – which hacks into US and British IT systems countless times a day – and Russia’s FSB, which morphed from the KGB.

According to The Sunday Times, Bernard Squarcini, ex-head of French intelligence, admits, ‘All countries, even allies co-operating in the anti-terrorist struggle, are spying on each other.

‘The Americans spy on us in the commercial and industrial field and we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our companies. Everyone knows it.’

And Merkel’s a fine one to moan. The BND, Germany’s equivalent of MI5, fessed up to the Bild newspaper that it monitored phone calls, text message and emails in the USA, saying, ‘We take what we can get. If someone offers us information, for instance about the Americans, we will not throw it in the bin.’

Neither is Britain an innocent bystander. In fact, the UK is hugely respected as maestros of the spying game, numbering amongst its virtuoso performances bugging the Bundesbank, tapping the handpieces of UN Security Council members and – if ex-Labour minister Clare Short is to be believed – nobbling UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s cellphone in the prelude to the 1990 Gulf War.

Professor Anthony Glees, an expert in espionage, is pretty sangfroid in his assessment of the intelligence community, saying that despite co-operation between friendly nations, spying on one another was routine.

‘Any agency worth its salt would do it,’ he states blandly. ‘You’d want your money back if they didn’t.’

So the next time a world leader bleats about being bugged, I suggest they recall the biblical exhortation along the lines of, ‘Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone.’

If ‘Mutti’ Merkel doesn’t pay up, there’ll be nothing rosy in her Euroland back garden

Bismark, the founder of modern Germany, once remarked that ‘politics wasn’t an exact science’, but failed to add that those engaged in its dark arts should carry a health warning, rather like a packet of cigarettes.

So, the day I start to trust forked-tongued politicians, book me a slab in the mortuary or – worse still – a place in the nearest home for gaga, financially-distressed  gentlefolk, where I can dribble away my days, as a nurse feeds me Complan through a bendy straw.

At least, Baroness Thatcher was a straight-talker in whatever guise people viewed her…the Tory radical, who did a pretty fair impression of that compulsive thrasher, Wackford Squeers, in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, or the Blessed St. Margaret, whose good works saved Britain.

That debate will rage long after last Wednesday’s ‘ceremonial’ funeral – an event of such grandeur and expense (£10M), she’s still dividing a nation. So, there’s simply no escaping the impact of politicians, dead or alive.

That suspicion crossed my mind last week last week, as my gestor – here that’s a financial administration or accountant – filled out our Modelo 720, the declaration all Spanish residents must file before April 30, if they have more than €50K of assets squirreled away beyond the shores of this sun-kissed realm.

Pesky bureauprats harvesting information at the behest of their political masters always makes me bristle. And, after the Cyprus farrago – when the government ram-raided private bank accounts to comply with a €multi-billion loan from the Troika (European Central Bank+IMF+EU Commission) – who’s to say what’s round the proverbial corner.

BANK HEIST: Cypriots protest after their bank accounts were raid to pay for the Troika's loan

BANK HEIST: Cypriots protest after their bank accounts were raid to pay for the Troika’s loan

‘The declaration is only to stop money-laundering and nothing to fear,’ Juan the gestor assured me. ‘Spain’s finance minister has said so.’

‘Oh, I’ll certainly sleep easier tonight if a politician said that,’ I told him, my irony falling on deaf ears.

Then I learned of a new, little threat being hatched by Germany’s financial wunderkinds: Making better-off home-owners cough up towards bailing out Eurozone members, skinter than a church mouse’s scullery maid.

This latest proposal from Angela Merkel’s brains’ trust – a.k.a. the ‘Five Wise Men’ – comes with a blaring caveat: their job is to think the unthinkable, but their ideas often translate into policies.

Before this sends paroxysm through more than 400,000 Brits with properties in Spain – plus innumerable other foreign nationals, not to say a few Germans – here’s the good news…to date, Mariono Rajoy’s centre-Right government has managed to keep its begging bowl in Madrid, forestalling the Troika’s torture rack by introducing its own oppressive austerity measures.

So the pain in Spain stays local in the main.

But there’s no mistaking Berlin’s chagrin at having to back-stop loans to whom it perceives as feckless Latins and grabbing Greeks, whose countries host pied-a-terres belonging to some with Europe’s deepest pockets.

As the London Daily Telegraph’s Ambrose Pritchard Evans noted, ‘Taxes on property or other assets would mark a significant change in Europe’s approach to funding bail-outs…until now, the cost of rescue packages has fallen largely on people who invest in those country’s bonds, or – in the case of Cyprus – bank accounts.’

However, Professor Peter Bofinger, one of the German Chancellor’s advisers, says levies on bank accounts are a mistake, because the really whiffy rich can move moolah around at the click of a computer keyboard.

What the ‘haves’ cannot do, however, is shift bricks and mortar with the same alacrity. So why not hit holiday/second homes?

With Merkel facing re-election in September, ‘Mutti’ – ‘Mummy’ as she’s nicknamed in by the German media – needs to appease an electorate angry their uber-rich nation is forced to act as Europe’s backer of last resort, hence their growing attraction to the new, Alternative für Deutschland party, a sort of UKIP in lederhosen.

MUTTERS ABOUT MUTTI: Germans are angry about bail-outs for the 'better-offs' in the Eurozone's south

MUTTERS ABOUT MUTTI: Germans are angry about bail-outs for the ‘better-offs’ in the Eurozone’s south

Meanwhile, her Five Wise Men have siezed on an inconvenient truth: Germans are generally not as financially comfy as their southern Eurozone cousins, a point recently highlighted by a European Central Bank study.

Incredible as it seems from the country that gave the world BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, less than half of Germans own their own homes and the median (or mid-point) wealth of the average Frankfurter is €51,000, compared with €183,000 for a Spaniard, €172,000 for an Italian and – wait for it – €267,000 for a Cypriot.

No, honestly, I’m not making those figures up.

Conversely, there are counter claims by the new ‘have-nots’ of Club Med, who ask – not without cause – which country had gained most from the great United States of Euroland experiment?

The answer is self-evidently Germany, which has grown exponentially, outstripping the culturally and historically diverse southern states, regardless of its feted Anglo-Saxon work ethic (though, knowing the long hours an average Spaniard puts into a job, that’s debatable).

Perhaps this can be attributed to better organisation and discipline; of being less ham-strung by needless bureaucracy and statism; of not imagining you could leverage your way into competing with the irresistible Teutonic juggernaut by making your territory the playground of Europe, gracias to a geographic gift of climate.

However, the incontrovertible reality is Germany’s vision of a one-size-fits all Eurozone isn’t working. And the cost of keeping it afloat will long be measured in billions – maybe trillions, if Spain or Italy goes bust – to boost economies than can’t possibly imitate its example.

The USofA works on the premise that the richest states (e.g. California and New York) top up the poorest (i.e. Arkansas and Mississippi) via taxation and few cavil at that.

Which is why, on the near horizon at least, a USofE is unlikely to aspire to America’s motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ – ‘Out of many, one’. Because cultural and historical diversity no longer matter as archly in the home of the brave than on a continent ravaged by centuries of war, a Tower of Babel where memories are long.

A USofE might be the theoretical pipedream of many politicians. But the cold, harsh facts contradict every economic principle since the demise of feudalism.

Yes, a free market – where goods, money and people are interchangeable – can survive and prosper, but a political-monetary-fiscal entity is an altogether different illusion. And, thus far, a single currency imposed on disparate nations has never succeeded, as a Latin one failed in 1927 and a Scandinavian version – linked to the Gold Standard – between Sweden, Denmark and Norway bit the dust in1914.

So, if Germany wants a neat and tidy Eurozone back garden, tended by Spanish vintners, Greeks mowing its lawn and Portugeezers pruning orange groves, it must pay – or go its own way.

EU referendum: Why Cameron’s ‘In or Out?’ is the wrong question to ask the voters…

To be or not to be, that is the question. No, I’m not from quoting Hamlet’s soliloquy, but UK Prime Minister David – ‘Call me Dave’ – Cameron on asking Britons where they fit…in or out of the European Union. Bluntly put and as simple as that.

After threatening for what seemed a small, political eternity to pull the trigger on a referendum, he finally found the balls and gall to do it, by saying last Thursday the people would have the choice of being Europeans or plain, old Brits.

Well almost, nearly, not quite, perhaps and subject to more caveats than I’ve got odd socks.

Firstly, the plebiscite won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest. It will also take place only if the Conservatives, minus meddling Europhile Lib-Dems, win an outright majority in the 2015 general election. And that’s no given.

Furthermore, making we, the public, judge and jury will depend on what renegotiated terms Dave can wring out of fellow EU leaders beforehand about reforming some of the bloc’s barmier rules and returning sovereignty, ceded under various arcane treaties, back to Britain (the European Court of Human Rights overriding the justice of Britain’s Supreme Court is a prime example).

Of course, the bait of a referendum could be just political brinksmanship to outflank the expanding appeal of UKIP and mop the fevered brows of Tory Eurosceptics, who would rather go back to minting groats than having the euro foisted upon them and dread the creeping, centralised control of Brussels’ Europrats.

For his part, Dave’s made his personal intentions transparent, insists he does not want Britain to quit the 27-nation alignment and would ‘fight with all my heart and soul’ for a ‘Yes’ vote if/when the time comes.

But he does concede the British public’s latent mistrust of the EU is growing and democratic consent is now ‘wafer thin’. Plus, it is nearly 38 years since our island nation had a say in their EU future and way back then, in 1975, it was for a free-trade Common Market, not a United States of Europe.

The fragility of the euro hasn’t contributed to confidence, even if Britain has chosen to retain the £. And many older-timers amongst the electorate harbour xenophobic inclinations, probably best summed up by a London newspaper headline of the 1930s, stating, ‘Fog in Channel – Continent cut off.’

These rather archaic views, I suspect, are not shared by a younger, cosmopolitan generation, whom Dave hopes will drive him over the ‘Yes’ vote line, if only they can be persuaded to bother turning out if/when said referendum happens.

Meanwhile, the knee-jerk reaction from our European buddies to Dave’s announcement has been predictably mixed.

QUESTIONABLE QUESTION: Asking Brits to vote 'In' or 'Out' could wreck Cameron's strategy

QUESTIONABLE QUESTION: Could Cameron have boobed by what he’s asking Brits to vote on?

The French (who else!) say they’ll put out the red carpet ushering us to the exit, though German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is more sanguine, saying she was prepared to ‘talk about British wishes’ to try and achieve a ‘fair compromise’.

But then pragmatic ‘Mutti’ (Mother) Merkel understands the benefits of having Britain on board, because her voters are wearied of paying for what they perceive are feckless Latins living on tick and anonymous paper-shufflers inventing new rules, based on a half-baked, Gallic model of a Euro superstate.

Plus, Merkel knows Brits share the Anglo-Saxon work ethic and mercantile values with her folk, as do the Swedes, who stuck to their krone and equally abhor the omnipotence of Brussels.

All three nations – along with Holland – are cognisant of the advantages of being part of a trading bloc, with 300 million potential consumers, and believe they stick more rigidly to the EU rules, however daft some are, than the laissez-faire Southerners.

Anyone – like yours truly – who has lived south of whatever notional border divides the EU geographically and politically knows how stupidly hidebound bureaucracy is in countries like Spain, France, Portugal, Italy and Greece. They realise, too, that welters of red tape can be hacked away, leaving a sleeker, fairer and more functional society, where greater transparency reigns and corruption is marginalised.

That is basically what the majority of Britons seek, most of all less European interference in the affairs of a country that has fashioned itself into a bastion of democracy, warts and all, over a millennium.

In other words the old free-trade deal.

That’s why I believe Dave’s ‘In or out’ question to the masses is the wrong one and a high-stakes gambit, which – if it turned turtle – would play into the hands of our foes across the Channel (of which there are many).

The question I think the PM should have posed is, ‘Do you prefer a Common Market or a centralised United States of Europe?’

I’d guess Brits would opt for the Market, which would placate Eurosceptics and leave him with enough wriggle room to renegotiate better terms for the UK.

It would also have armed him with a mandate that left Britain retaining a seat at the EU high table, fired a warning shot across the federalists’ bows and given our allies (we have some of those, too) confidence they could stand beside us and push against further, unwarranted integration.

However, this is not the time yet to discuss the emotional aspects of a highly emotive topic. Tempers need to cool and the pros and cons carefully weighed before such a momentous decision can be reached.

Besides, it may never happen. At least in 2017.

The EU may fragment by then, though the euros’ ills seem less critical than a half-year ago, before the European Central Bank vowed to ride, like the Seventh Cavalry, to further rescues (but remember the fate of Colonel Custer).

Still, in putting his money where his mouth and posing such a direct, ‘In/Out’ question, Dave has taken a monumental gamble on Britain’s future.

And his party could pay the ultimate price for it…the UK’s excommunication from the EU and no veto over new treaties that underpin an eventual United States of Europe.