Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

In the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria says that Obama should reject General McChrystal's demand for a troop surge in Afghanistan:

Why has security gotten worse? Largely because Hamid Karzai's government is ineffective and corrupt and has alienated large numbers of Pashtuns, who have migrated to the Taliban. It is not clear that this problem can be solved by force, even using a smart counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, more troops injected into the current climate could provoke an anti-government or nationalist backlash.

On the day the London Evening Standard goes free, the Times's Libby Purves argues that the days of free online content are over:

It's been fun: like a jammed fruit machine spewing free tokens or a whisky-galore shipwreck. But it's got to stop. Content -- whether music, films, pictures, news or prose -- can't be free and flourish. The music and movie industries are fighting: journalism, after the ego trip of gaining millions of online readers, is following. It has to. There is no alternative.

The Guardian's Jackie Ashley writes that the quality of prospective MPs gives cause for optimism as the expenses scandal returns:

[T]his is the good news: that parliamentary politics really is being cleaned up. If MPs behave badly, out they will go. Most ordinary parliamentarians work very hard, and for less money than they could get elsewhere. There are rotten apples and overripe plums; but there are some good ones too. You can't improve parliament without encouraging a fresh wave of keen, principled and determined outsiders to breach its walls. Now this is going to happen.

The New York Times's Paul Krugman warns that an obsessive fear of inflation threatens to prevent a full economic recovery:

What's even more extraordinary, however, is the idea that raising rates would make sense any time soon. After all, the unemployment rate is a horrifying 9.8 per cent and still rising, while inflation is running well below the Fed's long-term target. This suggests that the Fed should be in no hurry to tighten -- in fact, standard policy rules of thumb suggest that interest rates should be left on hold for the next two years or more, or until the unemployment rate has fallen to around 7 per cent.

In the Independent, Paul Collier says that the economic crisis has led to a damaging flight of finance from Africa:

Why does this matter? It matters because Africa desperately needs more investment. For decades Africa has been investing only around 20 per cent of national income, whereas Asia is investing around 40 per cent. At these rates, almost regardless of returns, Africa will continue to fall further behind the emerging-market economies. Yet Africa simply cannot afford to finance a substantial increase in investment from its internal resources. A domestically financed increase in investment could only come at the expense of consumption.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.