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.

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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.