Cameron is a spectator at euro endgame

Any deal will have "Made in Germany" stamped all over it.

It appears that European leaders are finally mobilising the political will required to save the single currency from collapsing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's speech to the Bundestag today signals clear recognition that institutional reform, binding euro member states into a very different model of fiscal integration, is the only outcome that will persuade markets that the whole project is sustainable.

Last night Nicolas Sarkozy also made a speech suggesting he was moving towards the Merkel position.

The French President said, in effect, that he will work with the German Chancellor to establish a more rigorous system of European governance. He rejected the idea that this meant a new "supranational" model, but he seems to have accepted the principle of automatic sanctions, imposed by a European institution, against single currency members that break the rules of budget discipline originally laid down in the founding Stability and Growth pact.

For months it has been clear that market turmoil would not subside until euro zone leaders agreed clear proposals to express economic solidarity on the level of institutional reform.

Crudely speaking, Germany would have to put its economy up as collateral for debt accrued by weaker member states. In exchange, the indebted countries would have to submit their budgets to scrutiny by European institutions - the European Central Bank (ECB) or some beefed up administrative cadre running the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Ultimately that kind of arrangement leads towards the establishment of a prototype European Finance Ministry.

In any case, the choice is between a new pact that creates the basis for an integrated hardcore eurozone or the catastrophic collapse of the single currency.

Over recent weeks there has been a lot of speculation about Angela Merkel's behaviour through the crisis, and why she appears to have let things get to such an extreme point. Germany has come in for a lot of criticism for withholding permission for the ECB to take action to inject liquidity into the market and, if necessary, buy up debt that the market has rejected. She now seems to be relenting on that front, but her preferred sequence of events is still political agreement on reform preceding full-scale ECB intervention.

A popular interpretation is that she does not have enough domestic political support to encourage measures that look like an abandonment of Germany's cherished attachment to monetary discipline - the tradition of the mighty old Deutschmark. This in turn is said to stem from the deep scars left in the German psyche by the hyperinflation of the inter-War years and all the terrible things that followed from the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

But there is another interpretation, less commonly discussed but no less plausible. It is that Merkel has been withholding support for interim and ad hoc measures to increase the pressure on other European states to find a longer term political solution. In other words, she has waited for other European leaders to be so freaked out by the prospect of euro collapse that they will agree to reform the EU on German terms.

It seems to be working, but it is extraordinarily risky. If the whole thing falls apart, Merkel will get a large portion of the blame. If, however, a political deal is done at one minute to midnight and the result is a new stability pact with "Made in Germany" written all over it, Merkel just might have pulled off a most extraordinary act of diplomatic brinksmanship. It looks like a game of chicken between Germany and the rest of Europe where the penalty, if neither side budges in time, is financial apocalypse.

This is all quite bad news for David Cameron. He has accepted the logic of eurozone fiscal integration for the sensible and pragmatic reason that anything less would risk a systemic banking crisis across Europe. (An indication of the threat: a Treasury official told me earlier this week that contingency plans include anticipation of financial failure on a scale that would require nationalising UK banks.)

But given the extreme urgency of the situation, and the fact that Britain is not a euro member, Cameron's hopes of getting some quid pro quo for supporting a new treaty are receding from view. Changes are now very likely to be agreed among the 17 single currency members, which means the UK would not have a potential veto that might be used to extract concessions. In any case, under the circumstances it would be diplomatic lunacy to start impeding crisis resolution now with frankly irrelevant calls for "repatriation of powers" demanded by Tory backbenchers. Cameron is meeting Sarkozy today, but it is far from clear what he thinks he can get out of the talks.

The bottom line is that Cameron is a spectator. The most he can hope for is vague assurances that the single market will not be skewed or undermined by eurozone consolidation. That is no good to the Tory eurosceptics and they will be, I suspect, very unimpressed by their leader's inability to turn this crisis into an opportunity to redefine Britain's relationship with the EU. It will be redefined of course - just not on British terms.

 

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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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