Is this the end of the world as we know it?

It's certainly the end of the eurozone as we know it.

If there was ever a time for apocalyptic titles, well, this is it. Politicians, journalists, market participants, commentators, academics and pretty much everybody under the sun have engaged in an unofficial competition for who is going to come up with the most depressing prediction of what the not-so-distant-future holds for the eurozone and Europe at large.

If these doomsday predictions are anything to go by, our world will come crashing before our eyes very soon. Maybe, but it is not all that bad. This is indeed the end of the eurozone as we know but I believe we should all feel fine.

What is about to end is the perverse system of guarding a monetary union with peer pressure alone. The Stability and Growth Pack was an inadequate tool for governance, based on intergovernmentalism. Supranational institutions like the European Commission and Eurostat were left powerless to enforce discipline (or even question Member States' statistics).

Proposals are already on the table to strengthen the governance of the eurozone and empower the Commission to scrutinise national budgets, warn about the build-up of imbalances and challenge Member States that break the rules. But more needs to be done; not least the creation of a European treasury with the appropriate authority, know-how and firepower to make fiscal and economic policy common for the eurozone as a whole.

The intergovernmental model of governance has taken focus away from the collective good of the Union and put the emphasis on EU Member States' competing national interests. What we need is independent and supranational institutions, taking decisions beyond narrow national interests, with the good of the EU as a whole in mind.

In a similar vein, the idea that monetary union can prosper without fiscal union has run its course.

The emergence of imbalances and the loss of competitiveness are features of all monetary unions, including the US or the UK. To reduce the chance that these imbalances occur, scrutiny of fiscal policies and national budgets must be accompanied by the integration of labour, social and tax policies in an effort to form not just common economic policies but also a truly common European economy.

But when imbalances do emerge a system of transfers must be put in place to afford the embattled part of the union time and space to implement the necessary policies that will allow it to regain competitiveness. Those transfers will be conditional to the applications of the appropriate policies and can only happen in the context of a comprehensive fiscal union, with the rights and responsibilities that implies.

Furthermore, the European Central Bank must be liberated from its purely price stability remit. A strong and stable eurozone requires an central bank that monitors the build-up of imbalances across the economy and the financial services sector and is able -- and willing -- to function as lender of last resort when solvent member states and financial institutions find themselves in liquidity problems due to a systemic shock in the markets.

The creation of a fiscal union and the strengthening of the central bank will allow for the issuance of common bonds without the risk of moral hazard. Member Sates won't need to rely purely on the discipline of markets when they have to abide to the discipline of eurozone institutions. At the same time, the eurozone will not run the risk of constantly falling pray to the un-picking of its weakest link by the markets.

Last, but certainly not least, this Huxleyian Brave New World should have at its core democratically legitimate and accountable institutions. If we are to move closer to fiscal and economic federalism, governed by the independent and supranational institutions mentioned above, EU citizens must be at the heart of the process. Those charged with making decision -- be it the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, a European Finance Minister or the Members of the European Parliament -- must be directly accountable to the people.

Direct election for the three former, and a more representative voting system for the latter, will ensure a direct link between the electorate and the elected, and legitimise the process of economic integration needed to safeguard the future of the eurozone. This is not pro-European fantasy: it is a necessary building block in the architecture of the new governance structure of the Eurozone. And for that we need a new, grand, pan-EU Social Contract between EU citizens and their elected representatives.

The sooner we start drafting that contract the quicker we will be able to take EU citizens on board the process of closer European integration, bidding farewell to the world as we know it while greeting a new, brave one.

Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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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.