Cameron offers the eurozone advice

The PM offers advice to Europe but suggests little change at home.

David Cameron has made his big speech on the economy and the eurozone, focusing on the "three challenges" which Britain faces:

First, the struggle to recover from a long and deep recession at home.Second, the turbulence coming from the Eurozone. And third, the uncertainty over whether the world is on the right economic path, with debates about trade policy and how to support growth.

On the recession, the recent switch in emphasis from getting spending under control to building a sustainable plan for growth was in evidence. Cameron highlighted the reform to the planning regulations, which scrapped over 1000 pages of rules, the creation of 24 enterprise zones, and the regional growth fund. The latter has been panned as a costly mistake, but the Prime Minister suggested that it is on track to create 324,000 jobs – almost ten times as many as the National Audit Office predicted.

Internationally, Cameron was intent on offering advice which he doesn't seem to be particularly qualified to give, and which none of the recipients really want. He highlighted three things which the euro countries should do to keep the currency functioning properly:

First, the high deficit, low competitiveness countries in the periphery of the Eurozone do need to confront their problems head on. They need to continue taking difficult steps to cut their spending, increase their revenues and undergo structural reform to become competitive. The idea that high deficit countries can borrow and spend their way to recovery is a dangerous delusion.

Yes, point one: austerity! Of course, Italy and Spain are actually textbook practitioners of austerity already, and it hasn't done them a lot of good. But Cameron does also echo our leader today in calling for Germany to loosen monetary policy to make up for the absence of fiscal expansion, saying:

Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble is right to recognise rising wages in his country can play a part in correcting these imbalances but monetary policy in the Eurozone must also do more.

Cameron's second point calls for "governance arrangements that create confidence for the future":

As the British Government has been arguing for a year now that means following the logic of monetary union towards solutions that deliver greater forms of collective support and collective responsibility of which Eurobonds are one possible example. Steps such as these are needed to put an end to speculation about the future of the euro.

More collective support will irritate the already fuming Andrew Lilico, who wrote on Conservative Home today that Osborne and Brown should face criminal charges for the help already extended to Greece. Lilico wrote:

It cannot be acceptable for UK bureaucrats and ministers to act in clear defiance of the law, and then lose billions of pounds as a consequence of their nakedly illegal acts. That isn't just "one of those things". It is, in principle, actionable in much the same way as if the chief executive of your council acted clearly against the law and lost money by doing so. Ministers are not above the law, and are not entitled to defy Treaties, losing billions of pounds in the process, just because it seemed convenient to do so at the time.

Thirdly, Cameron argues that "we all need to address Europe’s overall low productivity and lack of economic dynamism":

Most EU member states are becoming less competitive compared to the rest of the world, not more. The Single Market is incomplete and competition throughout Europe is too constrained. Indeed, Britain has long been arguing for a pro-business, pro-growth agenda in Europe.

Cameron claiming a pro-growth agenda in Europe could be seen as faintly ironic. Lest we forget, Britain contracted last quarter while the eurozone merely stagnated. Perhaps this could be the government's new excuse for Britain's economic woes: we're pushing so hard for growth in Europe that we forgot to get any back home.

One line from Cameron was particularly welcome, however. Speaking about the right economic path to take post recession, he announced:

I’ve asked the Treasury to examine what more we can do to boost credit for business, housing and infrastructure.

We’ve taken the tough decisions to earn those low interest rates – so let’s make sure we’re putting them to good use. Building recovery is hard work because we are not reinflating the bubble but building a new model of growth. Some people asked why we didn’t have more economy Bills in the Queen’s Speech.  If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can’t.

Despite the fact that many would argue that our low interest rates aren't "earned" at all, but merely a fortunate outcome of our low growth expectations, if we have them, we certainly should be using them. Let's see how the Prime Minister intends to do that.

Greek shoppers in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.