Britain opposes European plans for a Robin Hood tax

Downing Street says it will defend the City from a financial transaction tax that EU leaders claim c

Britain has vowed to fight European plans for a tax on financial transactions. At a summit in Paris on Tuesday, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel surprised other European leaders by calling for a tax that would be applied to deals in shares, bonds, and derivatives.

Campaigners have been calling for the so-called Robin Hood tax for many months. A European Commission paper drawn up this year suggested that a tax of 0.1 per ecnt on stocks and bonds, coupled with a 0.01 per cent levy on derivatives deals, could raise between €31 billion and €50 billion each year.

The idea of a tax on financial transactions was pioneered by the American economist James Tobin but struggled to gain traction during the neoliberal dominance of the 1980s. The idea was mooted by Gordon Brown back in 2009, but he failed to gain significant support for it.

One of the main challenges of introducing a Tobin tax is reaching international agreement. Referring to this latest proposal, a Treasury spokesman said: "Any financial transaction tax would have to apply globally -- otherwise the transactions covered would simply relocate to countries not applying the tax."

Implementing the tax across Europe would go some way towards achieving this; but such a move would require the unanimous approval of all 27 of the EU's member states, and is as such unlikely.

This is a shame. The tax would reduce the excessive risk-taking that brought the world's financial system to its knees. Campaigners also estimate that a small tax could raise billions without having a negative impact on the prosperity of the sector.

Support has come from some unexpected places. In August 2009, Lord Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, suggested that a tax on financial transactions could limit the money available for bonuses and added that it would be "a nice sensible revenue source for funding global public goods".

However, the British government is clearly not interested in even exploring the option of seeking consensus on the tax. When a financial transaction tax was included in the European Commission's seven-year plan at the end of June, Downing Street instantly dismissed the proposal as "completely unrealistic". José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, responded saying: "Some are saying no before they've studied the proposal which was only finalised a few hours ago ... That doesn't fit with seriousness and credibility."

Predictably, shares in backs and stockbroking firms fell with the news. Yet this is no reason for capitulation. The City has called the shots for too long, with a return to business as usual raising the spectre of another financial crash. It is a shame that Downing Street and the Treasury are so concerned with defending the status quo, rather than looking at options for substantive, long-term change.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.

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