It's Britain vs Germany on the Robin Hood tax

Merkel ally warns that Britain will not "get away with" opposition to a transactions tax.

"A bullet aimed at the heart of London". That was the vivid language used by George Osborne to denounce proposals for a Europe-only financial transactions tax (better known as the Tobin tax or the Robin Hood tax), warning that it would be "economic suicide" for the EU to impose the levy unilaterally. And, to put it mildly, his comments haven't been well received by Germany.

Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Christian Democrats, told his party's congress:

I can understand that the British don't want that when they generate almost 30 per cent of their gross domestic product from financial-market business in the City of London.

But Britain also carries responsibility for making Europe a success. Only being after their own benefit and refusing to contribute is not the message we're letting the British get away with.

Why, you may ask, are two notional conservatives so at odds with each other? In the case of Kauder, the answer is simple: revenue. It's thought that a Tobin tax could raise up to £35bn for a eurozone bailout. For this reason, Angela Merkel is determined to push ahead with the tax even if agreement with the US and China can't be reached.

In the case of Osborne, the answer is finance. The Chancellor is determined to veto anything that threatens London's status as a global financial centre. Indeed, a recent City AM report suggested that Osborne is minded to oppose a transactions tax even if it is applied internationally. In a private letter to bank chiefs, the Chancellor wrote: "I agree there would need to be further discussions about whether any FTT model offers an efficient mechanism to raise revenue." All of which suggests that Friday's meeting between David Cameron and Merkel in Berlin could be the testiest for some time.

Incidentally, Kauder's comments on the EU's political direction were just as notable. He declared:

Now all of a sudden, Europe is speaking German. Not as a language, but in its acceptance of the instruments for which Angela Merkel has fought so hard, and with success in the end.

His phrase of choice ("Europe is speaking German") has prompted a typical burst of Germanophobia from the Daily Mail.


George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.