Europe moves to a financial transactions tax — will we follow?

Eleven countries made the decision to introduce a tax on financial transactions yesterday. Simon Chouffot argues we should take heed.

Just as David Cameron appeared to be grabbing his coat for an EU exit, other European countries took a step towards greater unity with agreement for eleven countries to implement a multi-billion pound tax on the banks.

Not tax rises on low income families, or cuts to public services to balance the books, but a tax on banks. It's not every day you get to write that. The eleven hope that the Financial Transaction Tax of between 0.1-0.01 per cent on stocks, bonds and derivatives could be implemented as early as next year and will raise around £30bn.

The FTT has for years stirred controversy. Banks, following the Mayan's lead, warned that the end of the world was nigh. As campaigners for a Robin Hood Tax we have often been told "you may have a nice video with Bill Nighy in it, but your idea won't wash in the complex world of finance, nor will it cut it at the coalface of Government."

Yet it has – Europe's biggest economies including France, Germany, Italy and Spain are signed up. The group of eleven makes up an impressive 90 percent of Eurozone GDP. Other European nations agreed to let them press ahead. Yet there was one notable abstention, from the UK Government.

Why? It could be argued that a right of centre Government, a powerful financial sector and an economy struggling to return to growth would never add up to much of an appetite to take a chunk out of the banks. Yet all of this applies to Germany, one of the FTT's biggest champions.

The difference is that Germany sees the FTT as a necessary part of the economic equation. It too is implementing tough austerity measures. Germany understands the need to balance and indeed improve the economy by ensuring the financial sector pays its fair share. The richest sector in the world, paying a modest additional tax for causing the largest financial crisis of a generation: quid pro quo.

As Wolfgang Schauble, German finance minister said:

It’s in the interest of the financial sector itself that it should concentrate more on its proper role of financing the real economy and ensuring that capital is allocated in the most intelligent way, instead of banks conducting the bulk of their trading on their own account. That’s in the long-term interest of the financial sector.

Cameron, conversely, opted to call the Financial Transaction Tax "madness", fighting hammer and tong to protect the hallowed elite in the City, whilst cutting benefits and services for the poorest. The Government's much touted bank levy, will raise a just £2.5bn a year and be offset by a lowering of Corporation Tax that Osborne has boasted will be the lowest of any major western economy.

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England pointed out the irony that "the price of the financial crisis is being borne by people who did absolutely nothing to cause it", adding that he was "surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has".

But if the moral argument doesn't sway you, then the fiscal case should. Leading City figure Avinash Persaud has calculated that if the UK were to join in with the European Financial Transaction Tax it would raise the Exchequer at least £8bn a year. This could lift over three million people struggling on minimum pay above the living wage threshold.

Ten thousand teachers lost their jobs in 2010/2011 and there are 5,780 fewer nurses than at the time of the last general election – in eleven days an FTT could raise enough revenue to re-employ every one. In just a single day the tax could raise enough money to reinstate Sure Start centres for 25,000 children.

EU tax chief Algirdas Semeta described the FTT agreement as a “major milestone” that can “pave the way for others to do the same." The door has been left open and we should continue to press the UK Government to walk through it. The Labour Party wanted cover to fully back this tax – they now have it.

But this doesn’t have to be another case of Britain versus Europe. The UK has already got an FTT on share transactions – stamp duty – that raises some £3bn a year for the Exchequer without driving business away. Extending this to bonds and derivatives is not a dramatic leap and surely one that makes moral and financial sense.

As Cameron distances himself from Europe this is one item we should be reminding him is still on the agenda.

Demonstrators dressed as Robin Hood make their way down the Chicago River. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.