Cameron vetoes EU treaty: what does this decision mean?

The Prime Minister has taken a hard line in Europe in a political gamble that could leave Britain is

The Prime Minister has taken a hard line in Europe in a political gamble that could leave Britain isolated.

"Where we can't be given safeguards, it is better to be on the outside," said David Cameron at 6.20am today, as he announced that he has vetoed a revision of the Lisbon Treaty.

This is a huge development. It is the first time that a major treaty, striking at the heart of the EU, will go ahead without a British signature since Britain joined in 1973. It will redefine the nature of Britain's relationship with Europe, essentially creating a two-speed EU.

As I blogged on Wednesday, Cameron was in a very tight spot politically: on the one hand, his Eurosceptic backbenchers were clamouring for a referendum, while on the other his Liberal Democrat coalition partners warned against the risks of isolating Britain.

Isolation is certainly the main worry in the papers this morning. Of the 27 member states, all but four signed up to the treaty, with just Britain, Hungary, Sweden and the Czech Republic remaining on the outside. Sweden and the Czech Republic may yet join after their leaders have consulted their parliaments.

The risk here is that Britain will not only lose influence in the UK, but that its position in the single market will be jeopardised. Defending his decision at that early morning press conference (which was held after more than 10 hours of negotiations that ran through the night), Cameron said:

Of course we want the eurozone countries to come together and to solve their problems. But we should only allow that to happen inside the European Union treaties if there are proper protections for the single market and for other key British interests. Without those safeguards it is better not to have a treaty within a treaty but to have those countries make their arrangements separately.

He insisted that he would work to ensure that any agreement works for all 27 member states, not just the 23 signed up to it.

So, Cameron will not be forced to go to Parliament with a contentious treaty, nearly 20 years after John Major's trials with Maastricht. But does this decision ease his political headache?

In short, not really. The decision has won grudging support ("Credit where it's due -- Cameron has shown backbone," said Roger Helmer MEP), but it is by no means certain that calls for a referendum will end. Eurosceptics could feasibly still argue that the new treaty marks a major change in the power structures of EU and that the British public should be consulted.

It is unclear how much Nick Clegg knew about Cameron's hardline stance on this, but the Prime Minister's calculation will be that the Lib Dems will not walk out of coalition over this issue.

The other risk here is that "Britain's interests" will not necessarily be safeguarded. Cameron made defence of the City of London his price, demanding that any transfer of power from a national regulator to an EU regulator on financial services be subject to a veto. The cost was too high, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who has been pushing for a two-speed Europe) explained:

David Cameron requested something which we all considered was unacceptable. We couldn't have a waiver for the UK and in my view it would have undermined a lot of what we have done to regulate the financial sector.

Financial services regulation will press ahead without Britain, then. However, the Guardian points out that these regulations are decided by qualified majority voting, in which Britain does not have a veto. It can currently form a "blocking minority" to prevent legislation from going through, but if more countries join the euro this will shrink.

Cameron has taken a huge political gamble, hoping to channel Margaret Thatcher and her intransigence in Europe, rather than John Major and his struggles over the Maastricht Treaty. It has yet to be seen whether it will pay off. The first priority must be the resolution of the eurozone crisis, which Cameron himself said is "our biggest national interest". The next stage of talks will focus on saving the euro -- without Britain's input.

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

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.