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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.