Osborne almost choked halfway through his speech. Let’s hope the rest of us don't do the same.

Budget 2013

As last year’s Budget proved only too well, the devil is always in the detail. And while according to opposition leader Ed Miliband this was a Budget from a downgraded Chancellor, there was substantially more in George Osborne’s fourth outing than many observers expected, with the possible exception of the Evening Standard, which broke an embargo on most of the proposals

There were changes to the remit of the Governor of the Bank of England, a new employment allowance to encourage entrepreneurs and small businesses to employ more people, new initiatives to encourage more mortgage lending and stimulate the housing market and even an unexpected one penny drop in the price of beer.

The Budget Book will be less digested (and less digestible) than his speech (Osborne’s knack of almost filibustering through his Budgets means it is quite hard to pick out the important announcements), and it might be there that details will be found on the costing of announcements such as reducing corporation tax for large companies down to a flat rate of 20 per cent for all companies regardless of size and the abolishing of stamp duty for shares traded on smaller markets, such as AIM. These were both welcome as part of a wider plan to make the UK the most attractive place to start and run a business.

But the government’s ease with the idea that it’s OK for multinationals to seek to reduce their tax bill by picking the best place to locate is slightly at odds with an apparent disgust at other forms of sensible tax planning. Osborne claimed that they will be naming and shaming those who advise companies and/or individuals how to avoid tax (which means accountants as much as tax lawyers and others) and suggested that the already heavily-trailed General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR) would raise £3bn, with £1bn coming from offshore avoidance.

This matches the amount by which Osborne claimed to be boosting infrastructure spending, with the usual focus on broadband internet and odd projects such as Battersea Power Station singled out for the nod.

The truth is that Osborne had as little room for growth as expected with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) again downgrading growth forecasts for several years to come. Osborne made much of the international picture and placed much of the blame for this year’s forecast rate of 0.6 per cent growth on the eurozone. In truth if the uncertainty in Cyprus continues or spreads, even that anaemic rate will look optimistic.

All government departments will be forced to make further cuts to their budgets, in total a further £1.5bn on top of the £10bn announced in December. These will be achieved through greater efficiency and better financial controls, so at least it seems Osborne does see a positive role for accountants after all.

Perhaps more disappointing was that the detail of how the government intends to get money out to SMEs remained unclear. There was a brief mention of the Business Bank early on but no more detail in the speech.

Osborne almost choked halfway through delivering the Budget speech. Let’s hope there is nothing in the detail that makes the rest of the country do the same.

This article first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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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.