Cameron pulled in all directions on Europe

Ed Miliband accuses Cameron of leading the UK to the EU "exit" as David Davis demands two referendums.

Ken Clarke is one of the few prominent Conservative politicians still prepared to make the case for EU integration and he did it with gusto on the Today programme this morning. It was "complete folly" to put our membership at risk, he said, lamenting that the country had gone into "a nervous breakdown" over the subject. He dismissed the 53 Tory MPs who voted for a real-terms cut in the EU budget as "extreme Eurosceptics" and revealed that David Cameron had assured him that he was committed to continued British membership of the union.

"David Cameron assures the public, he’s always assured me, that he believes, as I do, that Britain’s place in the modern world has got to be in the EU.

It would be a disaster for our influence in global political events; it would be a disaster for the British economy, if we were to leave the EU. It damages our influence in these great critical events of the moment if we keep casting doubt on our continued membership."

Cameron, meanwhile, is being pulled in all directions on Europe today. In a speech at the CBI's annual conference, (which will also hear addresses from Cameron, Vince Cable and Boris Johnson), Ed Miliband will accuse him of allowing Britain to "sleepwalk towards exit" in a "betrayal of our national interest."

The Labour leader will say:

For more than three decades, our membership of the EU has seemed to be a settled question. Not any more.

Public scepticism about the EU has been on the rise for some time. Some cabinet ministers in this government now openly say we would be better off outside the EU.

And many of our traditional allies in Europe clearly think Britain is heading to the exit door. Those of us, like me, who passionately believe that Britain is stronger in the EU cannot be silent in a situation like this. I will not allow our country to sleepwalk towards exit because it would be a betrayal of our national interest.

He will add that were the UK to leave the EU, it would be "the United States, China, the EU in the negotiating room - and Britain in the overflow room. We would end up competing on low wages and low skills: an offshore low-value economy, a race to the bottom".

At the same time, Cameron's former leadership rival David Davis will use a speech at St Stephen's Club to call for the PM to offer not one but two referendums on Europe. The first would be a vote on what powers the government should seek to repatriate from Brussels, the second, to be held following the conclusion of negotiations, would be a vote on whether to remain in the EU.

Cameron is still expected to use a speech before Christmas to outline plans to hold a referendum after the next election on a "new EU settlement" for Britain, but Davis and other Tory MPs are growing increasingly impatient. As Davis said on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday: "Nobody believes it and why should they? The British public have been promised a referendum by the three major parties, and every single one has not delivered. Now, they may have their reasons, but they haven’t delivered and so the public feel they’ve been lied to – they won’t believe any more promises on referenda actually."

Elsewhere, the ever-helpful Boris Johnson uses his Telegraph column to warn Cameron that nothing less than a veto of the EU budget will do. He writes:

It is time for David Cameron to put on that pineapple-coloured wig and powder blue suit, whirl his handbag round his head and bring it crashing to the table with the words no, non, nein, neen, nee, ne, ei and ochi, until they get the message.

Yet a veto, by compelling the EU to set annual budgets through qualified majority voting, would almost certainly lead to a large increase in the UK contribution. If Cameron wants to make a eurosceptic gesture, it could prove a costly one.

David Cameron is expected to announce details of an EU referendum in a speech before the end of the year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.