A new chapter in EU integration, whether Britain likes it or not

The new EU treaty is bound to contain something that British sceptics think requires a referendum.

There will be a new treaty. It will commit euro members to fiscal discipline. It will be largely designed by the 17 current members of the European single currency. Others can join in if they want to. Those are the essential components of the deal announced today by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy after crisis talks in Paris.

In a sense this is exactly what had been expected. Discussions had been pointing in this direction since the end of last week. But the fact that the two leaders managed to say it at the same time in a live press conference lends the project a certain solidity and irrevocability. Something along the lines of what has been pledged might actually happen. Markets certainly seem reassured. The two leaders have promised monthly summits stretching ahead into the future (the preferred deadline is March 2012) to hammer out the details until a treaty is agreed and a new institutional and legal basis for the euro is fixed. The crucial fact as far as Britain is concerned here is that those summits will be convened among euro member heads of government. That is reasonable enough given it is their currency in crisis.

But Merkel did not describe these new summits as euro-fixing technical negotiations. She made it clear they would have a wide-reaching economic agenda to look at ways to stimulate growth through market reforms. That assertion spells disaster for David Cameron. His main demand in this process was to be included in the conversation about the future of the single market, to make sure Britain's vital interest in that aspect of European Union economic management was not overlooked in the hurry to redesign the single currency. If there are to be monthly euro-members-only summits looking at the whole growth and reform agenda it seems certain single market rules are going to get caught up in the negotiations. There are all sorts of ramifications if Britain isn't at the table, starting with the likely acceleration of moves on banking and finance reform to shift the balance of commercial power from the City of London to Frankfurt and Paris.

At a briefing shortly after the Merkel-Sarkozy press conference, the Prime Minister's spokesman made it clear the UK government's position is to examine more closely the content of what Germany and France are suggesting before forming a view on whether it would be better dealt with as a 17-member (euro only) treaty or a 27 member (full EU treaty). That position won't hold for long. It doesn't look as if Britain has much of a say anyway, and either outcome gives Cameron a headache. If he can persuade the European Council later this week that all 27 EU members should be working on a new treaty, he invites his backbenchers to present him with a shopping list of powers to repatriate during the talks. If he accepts that it should just be a 17-strong euro member treaty negotiation, he risks surrendering Britain's seat in a discussion that is plainly vital to our national economic interest. That process might still produce a document that has to be ratified by parliament. One way or another, the clamour for a referendum will grow.

Merkel and Sarkozy appear to have agreed a fast-track eurozone consolidation on a take it or leave it basis as far as the rest of the EU is concerned. From the French and German perspective it now looks as if the future of the European Union and the future of the single currency are the same thing. They are embarking on a new phase of integration. The implicit message to Britain: come along if you must, but stay in the back seat because we're driving.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.