EU success for Cameron? Get real

The Conservative leader is caught between a rock and a hard place over Europe.

As is customary at summits of the European Union, all leaders come away claiming victory. David Cameron is no different. Despite pledging several weeks ago that the EU budget would be frozen, he is now claiming victory for having limited the increase to 2.9 per cent. His spin machine is whirring into action.

But the truth is that the EU budget row has shown that it's only taken five months for the first significant Tory party split over the EU. David Cameron may be a pragmatic and skilled negotiator, but most of his MPs are not, especially when the EU rears its head.

The likes of Douglas Carswell and the veteran Thatcherite Eurosceptic Norman Tebbit have been on the rhetorical warpath, Tebbit going as far as to compare Cameron's acceptance of the EU budget with the Vichy puppet government's alliance with Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

Such language is deeply offensive and arrant rubbish. It is another reminder that Lord Tebbit should spend more time at the golf club and less time spouting his ill-informed poison.

The Tories have spent much of the past few weeks trying to blame Labour, falsely accusing Labour MEPs of voting in favour of the European Parliament's proposal to increase the EU budget by 6 per cent. This is simply not true – they voted to oppose the parliament's proposal.

The truth is that the Tory leadership, in their anxiety not to talk about the EU, did nothing to build alliances with other countries to block a budget increase. That they now have to accept a 2.9 per cent increase is their fault, not Labour's. This should be a wake-up call to the Tories to get real about the EU budget.

A bit of a reality check is also in order over the size of the budget. It is strictly capped, so that it can be only fractionally over 1 per cent of EU GDP, so let's not delude ourselves that we are talking about a huge increase. Most of the increase will pay for the new European External Action Service, beefing up foreign policy co-ordination between member states.

We should also scotch the myth that Britain subsidises the rest of Europe. In fact, while Britain is one of about ten countries who are net contributors to the EU budget, there are other countries with much more reason to complain about it. Germany's contribution is double that of Britain's, while the Netherlands contributes only slightly less, despite having a population that is a quarter the size of ours.

The Scandinavian nations and France are also among those countries which, in per person terms, make contributions similar to Britain's. This arrangement is sensible. It is right that Europe's wealthiest nations should put in a bit more than the poorest. Given that most of our exports go to other EU countries, it makes economic sense if as many countries as possible have the means to buy our goods and services.

Moreover, if the Tories think that, in the future, they can expect other countries to agree to a reduction in Britain's contribution, then they need to swallow a dose of reality. The truth is that most European countries actually resent that Britain already gets a £3bn-£4bn rebate each year, just as most Brits resent the costs of the Common Agricultural Policy.

While the CAP remains, so will the British rebate, and vice versa. It may be unwelcome to hear this, but that's the way it is.

So Cameron has learned that, when it comes to EU summits, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has saved a little face by leading the negotiations for a 2.9 per cent increase and talking tough for the Eurosceptic press, but the truth is that his position is akin to a poker player armed with a poor hand and little scope to bluff.

And his backbenchers know it. Thirty-seven Tory MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against a motion on the EU budget a fortnight ago. We can assume a similar-sized rebellion when the agreed budget comes before the Commons. Never mind. Watching the Tories rip themselves apart over the EU is always amusing bloodsport.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496