Posts tagged ‘UK’
Britain is buzzing with talk of a referendum on “Europe”. In May Peter Mandelson was advocating a national vote some time after 2016, when a new Europe of fiscal union will have been defined. He sees it as a way of resolving divisions within Britain’s political parties.
Last week it was David Owen’s turn. He called for a dual option: Question One on UK membership of the “European Community”, which would essentially be the single market plus extras; and Question Two on belonging to the “European Union”, which he defines as the eurozone group of countries in an economic federation. Once Britain’s foreign secretary and one of the Gang of Four which split from Labour to form the Social Democratic party in the early 1980s, Owen was always an advocate of Britain’s place in Europe, but was consistently opposed to joining the euro. He would want “yes” to his EC, “no” to his EU.
The fact is that Owen’s EC and EU cannot be so easily disentangled from each other, and while the referendum option may seem a decisive way of determining Britain’s future in Europe, there is nothing decisive about it. A negative vote would confront the nation with some deeply painful choices and be a recipe for long-term decline.
There is no doubt that the eurozone crisis is a fundamental game-changer for Britain, as it is for the whole European Union. This is the watershed. If the euro is to survive there must be significantly closer economic integration, more discipline over national budgets and a more robust European banking system. Angela Merkel is now talking of political union as well.
Britain and some other countries may wish to keep their distance, but the UK government must tread warily, for this is marshy ground. Such closer integration is bound to have far-reaching consequences for the British economy, especially over financial services. It also has implications for Britain’s influence at a global level and its role in the world.
Although British adoption of the euro is clearly out of the question, at least for the foreseeable future, it remains a fundamental responsibility of any UK government to maximise its influence over the direction of the European project. British ministers may express fierce indignation over the impact of the euro crisis on Britain’s economy (while the German economy, by the way, continues to flourish), but it remains crucially important to maximise leverage over policy and to engage with European partners, not just to shout from the sidelines.
It is hard to see any British government voluntarily choosing the referendum option. Cameron surely had no choice but to opt out of the fiscal treaty last December if he wished to avoid such a vote, but there remains a real danger that his hand will be forced by political pressures within his own party and the inroads which UKIP could make in Conservative seats in a general election. For the coalition government it would be a deal breaker, but at least legislation adopted last year to hold a referendum (only) if further powers were to be transferred to Brussels provides a useful firewall.
The right formula for Britain is as a committed member of the European Union, but with some options kept open. Schengen, the Charter on Fundamental Human Rights and monetary union are policy areas where opt-outs have been effectively applied. Europe’s direction of travel is unpredictable. Today’s bail-out of the Spanish banks may be a sign of more decisive action, but we still await the Greek general election result, which has come to seem very much like a referendum on the survival of the euro.
I have to admit to being a little bit of a pro-European (no? never! you say), so it is with some fidgeting discomfort that I read overnight the happenings in my native land on the EU. Our London office have done a quick round up of the rebellion on their blog (sounds like something Darth Vadar would want to crush).
I think it’s worthwhile reading the Prime Minister’s full statement to the House of Commons from last night in case you missed it. As Jon Worth notes (hat tip for making the front of the Guardian’s online edition yesterday) being in office has driven probably the most Eurosceptic of Prime Ministers closer rather than farther from Europe. As I read through his speech I noted many of the arguments that pro-Europeans make for why the EU is a good thing and in our national interest. Pity it’s taken a financial crisis and frightful backbench rebellion to get Mr. Cameron to say these things out loud and in public. I do have to laugh however that he’s only just noticed that the Commission are actually for completing the internal market and a friend of the UK’s agenda generally…One has to wonder where’s he’s been since the Single European Act, oh, the UK (well that explains it).
As for the future, I’m of the opinion this debate is not going away, especially in light of the further integration needed as a result of what’s happening in the Euro-zone and the PM’s desire to fundamentally renegotiate our relationship with the EU as expressed in the same speech. As the Americans would say, “Good luck with that”. Well, so be it. It’s time the UK had this discussion and that those who are generally have an aversion to “Europe” acknowledge the good things that the EU does deliver for UK business and citizens. As someone who takes delight in seeking to convert London cabbies to the European cause I’m up for it.
(note – see top right, all views expressed on this blog are personal)
It looks very much as if Iceland’s obligation to recompense the UK and the Netherlands for reimbursing depositors following the collapse of Landsbanki in 2008 is headed for years of litigation in the EFTA Court – not good news for those hoping for Iceland’s early EU membership. The question is whether the two creditors will allow the issue to be parked while membership negotiations proceed to a happy ending.
The Reykjavik government had negotiated much less aggressive repayment terms following the 93 per cent rejection in last year’s referendum and these had been approved in the Althing by a two thirds majority. The €3.8bn repayment timetable was extended from 8 to 22 years, out to 2046, and the interest rate cut from 5.5 per cent to 3.5 for the UK and 3 per cent for the Netherlands. Yet voters still resented having to compensate for the deeds (or misdeeds) of private banks and have thrown out the package.
Enlargement talks are due to begin again in late June, but even if difficult negotiating issues like mackerel quotas and whaling can be resolved and the negotiations brought to a successful end, Icelanders will still be asked to approve EU entry in a referendum. An Icelandic “yes” is no foregone conclusion, despite the economic arguments. Indeed, a sceptic might ask whether Ireland inside the eurozone is any better off than Iceland outside it, except that Iceland may find it more difficult to borrow on international markets until the new repayment schedule is agreed.
The people of Iceland are in good company in resenting the medicine which their leaders are forcing upon them. After its defeat in parliament, Portugal’s caretaker government is plunged into new talks with the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF as it applies for bail-out treatment under the European Financial Stability Facility.
This will mean tough new measures, such as more flexible employment laws, a further retreat from social support and a major privatisation programme, yet with no guarantee that an incoming government following the June 5 elections would support the package.
The Portuguese bail-out faces a further obstacle: the leader of the eurosceptic True Finns party has said that his party will vote against Finnish participation in a Portuguese bail-out following the Finnish general election on April 17, much to the consternation of Commissioner Olli Rehn, who fears that his home country could jeopardise the eurozone economic recovery programme.
The British government will also come under domestic pressure to minimise its contribution to the Portuguese bail-out package, and is playing down its potential liabilities, although it has a fundamental interest in a stable euro. I see that – together with Sweden – Britain has politely declined the invitation to participate in the co-ordinating principles of the Euro Pact, thus opting out of any opportunity to influence policy.
It does strike me that this opt-out further weakens Britain’s influence over evolving financial services legislation, where the atmosphere is already poisoned by the sentiment that financial markets are to blame for all our troubles and by the feeling that even the pressures on the eurozone are caused by conspiring money markets rather than by economic reality.
However, despite the troubles of the “peripheral” trio, the economic climate does seem to be improving. The German economy continues to grow rapidly, boosting imports as well as exports, and Spain seems likely to weather Portugal’s bail-out crisis without any domino effect – Madrid was able to sell three-year government bonds at less than 4 per cent interest on Thursday and Spanish borrowing is at manageable levels. It is the unemployment level which is the biggest worry for Spain.
The euro continues to strengthen against the dollar, suggesting that market confidence is growing, albeit helped by the quarter point rise in interest rates. Maybe the markets are becoming convinced that the eurozone will indeed take all necessary measures to secure its future. The political will is unswerving. Sadly this is no guarantee of the economic recovery which is vital for the future stability of its weaker member states.
We like it when a neat idea, some good will and a little Twitter get together:
Paul Smith, a 34-year-old freelancer, returned from his honeymoon with the travel blues.
Yearning for another trip, he decided to try to get from the UK to Campbell Island, 200 miles off the coast of New Zealand in less than 30 days.
Paul made it all the way to Stewart Island, off New Zealand, before getting stuck. (Stewart Island’s slogan, by the way, is “Island of Tranquility,” so it is actually not a bad place to be stranded…)
A recent Telegraph article explains how Paul did it:
- Ferry ticket from Newcastle to Amsterdam (tweeter named Leanne)
- Train to Paris (two French tweeters)
- Free bed at a hostel
- Train to Saarbrucken
- Lift in car to Frankfurt (German tweeter Andrea Juchem)
- One-way flight from Frankfurt to New York (tweeter called Owen, using Air Miles)
- Spare bed in hotel room (tweeter from Yorkshire named Mark)
- Then travel to and stays in Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco by plane, train and car (US tweeters)
- Flight to San Francisco (Zurich-based tweeter)
- Car to Los Angeles
- Free flight from LA to Auckland (Air New Zealand)
- Ferry to South Island
- Lift to tip of South Island (tweeter named Smiley)
- Sailed to Stewart Island.
This year’s UK election is full of landmarks and firsts. Not only did we witness the first ever televised debate with the top candidates but this year’s election has also attracted a growing number of digitally savvy citizens. This was made no more apparent than during last week’s debate between top candidates for Downing 10 – the most-tweeted ever. The 90 minute debate was followed by 38,000 twitterers who busily wrote over 180,000 tweets.
Okay, the debate was tweeted. So what!? I hear you say… Today people tweet about pretty much everything and nothing at all. However the BBC asked Lexalytics, an American firm to put its clever “sentiment-analysis” service to work on the twitter community. What Lexalytics essentially did was to feel the pulse of the twitterers to develop a type of sentiment barometer based on the language and tone of the 180,000 tweets. The end result makes a fascinating read, as it maps out how the twitterers reacted to the different answers given by the candidates.
Polling the social media community is most probably not truly reflective of the general public opinion but shouldn’t be entirely disregarded either. There are some great sentiment analysis applications out there. Take tweetminster, which is a constant real time sentiment tracker that not only tracks what potential voters are tweeting about the elections but also gives a geographic breakdown of the tweets. It also follows all the tweets from MPs and PPCs (Prospective Parliamentary Candidates).
It looks like this year’s election is going to be a tweeted one. UK politics seems to be firmly in the hands of Britain’s digital natives.
With an election by all accounts little more than a month or so away, yesterday’s UK budget is perhaps a key marker in a national election that will no doubt further define one of most reluctant member state’s relationship with the European project. True to form our UK colleagues led by Nick Williams and Julie Harris have turned out not only a blog post on the budget but also a Budget Insight Special 2010 briefing paper.
To paraphrase Churchill one has the feeling that this marks the beginning of the end of some UK political careers, while it may be the end of the beginning for others. My UK colleagues are betting on Conservative victory, as they’ve also launched Conservative Insight as a means to help us all understand what a Conservative government in the UK is likely to mean across a wide variety of policy areas.
It’s been amazing fun watching the UK media ruminate on the now seemingly receeding chances of Tony Blair being the first President of the European Council.
Firstly, there is some pleasure to be had in counting the number of times some hack in London gets all mixed up over what the job is. Will he be President of Europe, President of the European Council, President of the Council or President of the Council of Europe? Who knows? Does the UK media care? As an aside, all this confusion could form the basis for some bizarre studentesque drinking game. Every time a UK daily gets it wrong some kind of alcoholic forfeit would be administered. In any case all those reporting on this (or wishing to avoid alcohol abuse through sheer frustration) would be well advised to check out this post from NoseMonkey.
Secondly, is it me or did the UK media become obsessed with Tony Blair as President of the European Council? Even if they didn’t understand what it meant, that he hadn’t yet actually got the job or that with the exception of his successor (Gordon) no-one in the UK gets a vote on it. It was almost like the rest of Europe didn’t exist in this debate. The Brits seemed to take no account of the fact that many pretty well informed Europeans were wandering around Brussels saying ‘not on your life’ to Tony for a whole host of very valid reasons. No doubt whoever does get the job will be painted as an unknown and unelected bureaucrat – even if he happens to be the former Prime Minister of a European country who were founding members of the organisation the British begrudingly joined a couple of decades later.
Thirdly, even in Brussels one gets the sense that everyone is guessing. Ok, there’s some commonly accepted wisdom flying around the place. Front runners never get it. Small states prefer smaller men etc. etc. But really, other than a close cabral of PMs, Presidents and Chancellors, does anyone really know what’s going to happen? However, if your name is Angela and you do know, well, you could always leave a comment.
Finally, I know you’re going to tell me not to spoil everyone’s fun. The analysis of the runners and riders is likely to be far more interesting than what the new man/woman at the top will actually do at the end of the day. To show we’re not all spoilsports here at FH, here’s Nick Williams our MD of Public Affairs in London giving his thoughts on Tony Blair’s ‘covert’ campaign in PR Week this morning.
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- ‘Nul Points’ for Tony Blair as EU president but David Miliband sounds like a winner (telegraph.co.uk)