Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson find common ground on Europe

The Shadow Chancellor and former Business Secretary agree on how coalition policy is failing and wha

There is much chatter in Westminster today about an op-ed in today’s Guardian jointly penned by Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson. 

Predictably, the content of the article – arguing for a more balanced European economic agenda to stimulate growth in parallel with fiscal responsibility – attracted far less comment than the fact that its authors represent an unusual coupling. The two famously disagreed about Briatin’s prospects for euro entry when it was on the agenda in Tony Blair’s first term in government. More generally, they occupied opposing trenches for most of the long Blair-Brown civil war.

They have, it seems, patched up their differences for at least long enough to agree a position on European policy and even to share a platform at a conference this afternoon. The two Labour bigwigs sat alongside European Competition Commissioner Joaguin Almunia and former CBI Director General Richard Lambert on a discussion panel at an event hosted by the Centre for European Reform.

Predictably, Balls was asked at one point if he agreed with Lord Mandelson on the proposition (set out by the former European trade commissioner in a lecture last week) that Britain was heading for a referendum on its membership of a newly configured European Union. The shadow chancellor conceded that such an outcome might indeed by inevitable, but insisted it was not a matter of policy urgency for now. He then turned the question around to attack the government and the Tories for being unable to engage effectively in EU affairs. Ministerial fear of fanatical euroscpticism on the back benches is, said Balls, damaging British interests: “I don’t remember a time when British political leaders were less influential on decisions that have such a big impact.” David Cameron’s decision to walk away from a Brussels summit last December – the famous veto of a pan-EU fiscal stability treaty – was “catastrophic short-termism.”

Mandelson agreed, adding with more than a hint of mischief, that the government was, he believed, much more engaged and pro-European in private talks than it dared let on in public. He suggested the coalition’s real European policy was being conducted “privately, almost secretly.”

Perhaps just as interesting from a policy point of view, Ed Balls, in the discussion of how the eurozone ought to evolve in response to the current crisis, backed the idea of a unified single currency bond. He said: “There must be mutualisation of debt obligations” – which effectively means a eurobond and, by extension, a much more substantial level of financial integration among euro member states. I’m not sure the shadow chancellor has come out so explicitly on this issue before.

Also, even deeper into EU Kremlinology: Almunia was extraordinarily vocal in his criticism of the way the political process of eurozone crisis management turned into a bilateral negotiation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. The Commissioner referred to this as a “duopoly” and expressed the hope that the next stage of the crisis might be characterised by a “return to intergovernmental” ways of doing things. This might not sound like much, but in terms of Brussels protocol it is pretty unusual for a Commissioner to slam national heads of government so explicitly. There is clearly a lot of relief on the Commission that the “Merkozy” alliance has been disbanded. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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