The coalition gears up for a fight on public sector pensions

Danny Alexander defends plans to make workers work longer and pay more.

Unbowed by the threat of mass strike action, the government is continuing its drive to reform public sector pensions. Danny Alexander has been on the airwaves this morning defending plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 66 in 2020 and to increase workers' contributions by an average of 3.2 per cent. In an article for the Telegraph, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury writes: "It is unjustifiable that the taxpayer should work longer and pay more tax so that public sector workers can retire earlier and get more than them."

However, in an attempt to sweeten the pill, Alexander has announced that those earning less than £15,000 a year will not face any contribution increases while those earning under £18,000 will have the increase capped at 1.5 per cent. In addition, the increase will be phased in over three years from next April, taking into account the two-year public sector pay freeze.

But the risk remains that many average earners, already facing the steepest fall in living standards since the 1920s, will quit their pensions rather than pay more. As Unison general secretary Dave Prentis remarked: "[T]hose on above £18,000 a year who will see their contributions increase by much more than 50 per cent. These days £18,000 is not a huge amount and this will affect lots of public sector workers, including nurses and social workers." Yet given that the cost to the taxpayer is due to rise from £4bn a year at present to £9bn a year by 2015, ministers believe that they are on the right side of the argument.

In the meantime, the debate over whether the government should tighten existing anti-strike laws continues. Unlike Boris Johnson, who has called for the introduction of a 50 per cent threshold for strikes, ministers currently believe that there is no need to change the law, although in his Telegraph article Alexander pointedly notes that: "Only one in five members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union voted on Wednesday for strike action - the vast majority realise that such a step is unjustifiable."

But it's another Lib Dem, employment minister Ed Davey, who has offered the clearest argument yet against new anti-union legislation. In a speech at the National Liberal Club he warned that changing the law would be "antagonistic and inflammatory", adding that it would "play into the hands of the militants" and undermine moderate union leaders.

All the same, Davey went on to remark that "it's also not as Boris Johnson would have you believe, that the Lib Dems are lily-livered. If there's a case for taking action, we'll take action." Everyone, it seems, wants to keep all options on the table.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.