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Europe's Leaders Play Tennis While Markets Implode

August is famously the month when most of Europe hits the beach. Markets are quiet, parliaments are closed, and very little happens.

Tennis
Photo: AP
Tennis

However, this year is rather different, with an escalating crisis in the euro zone, bond yields rising scarily high and plenty to keep policy makers busy.

So, you may well ask, where are Europe's leaders?

They appear to be keener to sample theme park rides while holidaying in the US than the rollercoaster of another debt crisis.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had to return from his vacation on Monday night, after less than two weeks of failing to tip waitresses in Italy, as parts of London erupted in rioting.

His Finance Minister George Osborne has been snapped on a rollercoaster in California.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is off on her usual summer break of a two-week hiking holiday in the Tirol Alps – hopefully still within mobile phone reception as Germany will probably be key to solving the crisis.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy headed off to the French Riviera with his pregnant wife Carla Bruni.

José Manuel Barroso is taking some sun in his native Portugal, although his spokeswoman insists that he is working from his vacation.

In contrast, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero canceled a planned trip to a nature reserve in southern Spain as yields on the country's debt shot up. His Italian equivalent Silvio Berlusconi has abandoned his usual trip to his Sardinian holiday villa, allegedly the scene of "bunga bunga" parties.

Europe's economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn cut short his vacation too.

Eyebrows were raised in the UK when Lynne Featherstone, a junior Home Office minister, was the only member of government put forward to talk about violent riots in several parts of London over the weekend.

The riots followed the police shooting of a suspected gangster, Mark Duggan, by police on Thursday.

The Prime Minister, his deputy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Home Secretary all appeared to be out of the country at the same time.

A report in the Mail on Sunday, the right-wing British weekly newspaper, on Sunday saying that Cameron had flown out a tennis instructor from the UK for the second week of his family holiday in a plush Tuscan estate, was not well-received.

Cameron's deputy Nick Clegg returned Monday from his break in Spain and the south of France and came out with all guns blazing.

"I reject completely this notion that somehow this Government hasn't been functioning very effectively indeed last week and indeed this week," he told reporters.

"I have been speaking to members of the Government. I spoke to the Prime Minister this morning, to the Chancellor last night, the Home Secretary yesterday, the Business Secretary, to the Energy Secretary, to the Foreign Secretary, we are in constant contact with each other and we are working effectively together as a team this week as we do in every other week of the year."

Cameron has spoken to both Merkel and Sarkozy in the past week, while Osborne's office said that he made a series of urgent calls from his Californian holiday home to other finance ministers and the Governor of the Bank of England as the crisis unfolded.

It's easy to scoff at these attempts to stay on top of the situation from your sun lounger. We've all worked with someone who was still trying to manage things in the office from the poolside, with barely a bar's reception on their Blackberry.

In their defense, one of the scariest parts of this crisis is that no-one can predict when the next phase will emerge.

In Europe, where the average full-time worker gets around five weeks' paid holiday a year, compared to 9-15 days in the US, vacation time is regarded as sacrosanct. And most of these leaders have had a pretty busy year to date, with a small window to take their holiday.

So it was unsurprising to see Cameron emerging from a plane at Heathrow earlier than expected, with his tan muted by a few days spent pacing around hotel rooms rather than lounging outside with the latest Harlan Coben novel.

In politics, as in business, sometimes it's all about perception, and a paparazzi shot of Cameron perfecting his backhand while shops are looted in London could be as damaging to his reputation as a ratings agency downgrade.

Don't be surprised if Osborne swaps theme parks for meetings with Brussels bureaucrats sooner than planned too.

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