Obama should give Cameron an economics lesson

Only one of the two leaders is stimulating the global recovery.

No meeting between Barack Obama and David Cameron is now complete without a joint article lauding the "special" (or, in this case, the "essential") relationship and recalling the two countries' past triumphs. The Washington Post is the venue for today's op-ed and the first sentence hasn't even elapsed before the obligatory reference to Churchill.

Rather than the sections on Afghanistan, Iran and Syria (where there is consensus between the two men), the most intriguing passage is on the economy (where there is not). Obama and Cameron write:

As leading world economies, we are coordinating closely with our G-8 and G-20 partners to put people back to work, sustain the global recovery, stand with our European friends as they resolve their debt crisis and curb the reckless financial practices that have cost our taxpayers dearly. We're committed to expanding the trade and investment that support millions of jobs in our two countries.

That's sufficiently bland to avoid any controversy. But it disguises the fact that while one country (the US) is stimulating "the global recovery", another (the UK) is acting as a drag anchor on it. George Osborne was once fond of boasting that the UK had grown faster than the US, "despite fiscal stimulus in the former and fiscal consolidation in the latter, showing that the problem is not too much fiscal responsibility."

But that's not a claim he can make now. The final figures for 2011 showed that the US grew by 1.7 per cent, while the UK grew by just 0.8 per cent (see graph) - one of the worst growth rates in the EU. On employment, the picture is a similar one. While Obama is putting people back to work, Cameron is putting them on the dole. US unemployment is now at its lowest level since the recession, while UK unemployment is at its highest level since 1996.

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What explains the contrasting data? Well, while Obama chose to stimulate growth, Cameron chose to strangle it. Obama introduced an extended payroll tax cut, Cameron raised VAT to a record high of 20 per cent. As the ippr's Eric Beinhocker notes in today's Times (£), the US President's tax cut injected $92 billion a year of stimulus into the US economy, with the result that consumer spending increased by 2.2 per cent last year while it shrank by 0.8 per cent in Britain.

When Obama visited Britain last year he refused, to the despair of the Tories, to endorse Cameron's deficit reduction plan. Noting that the pair come from "different political traditions", he added that the "sequencing and pace" of fiscal contraction would be different in each country.

If and when the subject of the economy arises during Cameron's visit, it will be worth watching the two leaders' language. Having been vindicted by the data, Obama has every reason to offer some free economics tuition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”