The problem with Cameron's energy plan

A tariff is not "the lowest" if it's the only one available.

When David Cameron boldly declared, to the surprise of his ministers, that the government would force energy companies to put all their customers on the lowest tariff available, few expected his proposal to last. But the coalition will today attempt to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge. Energy Secretary Ed Davey is expected to announce that suppliers will be required to offer no more than four core tariffs (including fixed and variable rates) and to automatically move customers on to the cheapest one in each case.

Yet if companies are forced to offer consumers the lowest tariff in each category (be it fixed rate or variable), this won't be the lowest tariff available - it will be the only one. It would be as accurate to call it "the highest" tariff as it would be to call it "the lowest". And why should we assume that this single tariff will be set at the lowest rate currently available? The danger is that that the "Big Six" will simply raise the level of the lowest tariff, so that consumers pay no less, or even more, than at present. Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, has warned that the unintended consequence of the move will be "to kill competition". She told the Guardian: "Consumers will be left with Hobson's choice – there will be no spur, no choice, no innovation and no reason for consumers to engage any more."

Labour too is sceptical. Shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint notes that "the cheapest deal in an uncompetitive market will still not be a good deal. Unless David Cameron stands up to vested interests in the energy market and creates a tough new watchdog with powers to force energy companies to pass on price cuts his warm words will be cold comfort to people worried about paying their fuel bill this winter. "

In promising to win a better deal for consumers and denouncing the last Labour government for its failure to do so, Cameron has raised significant expectations. If he proves unable to fulfil them, it is his government that will pay the price.

David Cameron with Energy Secretary Ed Davey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Brexit has opened up big rifts among the remaining EU countries

Other non-Euro countries will miss Britain's lobbying - and Germany and France won't be too keen to make up for our lost budget contributions.

Untangling 40 years of Britain at the core of the EU has been compared to putting scrambled eggs back into their shells. On the UK side, political, legal, economic, and, not least, administrative difficulties are piling up, ranging from the Great Repeal Bill to how to process lorries at customs. But what is less appreciated is that Brexit has opened some big rifts in the EU.

This is most visible in relations between euro and non-euro countries. The UK is the EU’s second biggest economy, and after its exit the combined GDP of the non-euro member states falls from 38% of the eurozone GDP to barely 16%, or 11% of EU’s total. Unsurprisingly then, non-euro countries in Eastern Europe are worried that future integration might focus exclusively on the "euro core", leaving others in a loose periphery. This is at the core of recent discussions about a multi-speed Europe.

Previously, Britain has been central to the balance between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, often leading opposition to centralising eurozone impulses. Most recently, this was demonstrated by David Cameron’s renegotiation, in which he secured provisional guarantees for non-euro countries. British concerns were also among the reasons why the design of the European Banking Union was calibrated with the interests of the ‘outs’ in mind. Finally, the UK insisted that the euro crisis must not detract from the development of the Single Market through initiatives such as the capital markets union. With Britain gone, this relationship becomes increasingly lop-sided.

Another context in which Brexit opens a can of worms is discussions over the EU budget. For 2015, the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget, after its rebate and EU investments, accounted for about 10% of the total. Filling in this gap will require either higher contributions by other major states or cutting the benefits of recipient states. In the former scenario, this means increasing German and French contributions by roughly 2.8 and 2 billion euros respectively. In the latter, it means lower payments to net beneficiaries of EU cohesion funds - a country like Bulgaria, for example, might take a hit of up to 0.8% of GDP.

Beyond the financial impact, Brexit poses awkward questions about the strategy for EU spending in the future. The Union’s budgets are planned over seven-year timeframes, with the next cycle due to begin in 2020. This means discussions about how to compensate for the hole left by Britain will coincide with the initial discussions on the future budget framework that will start in 2018. Once again, this is particularly worrying for those receiving EU funds, which are now likely to either be cut or made conditional on what are likely to be more political requirements.

Brexit also upends the delicate institutional balance within EU structures. A lot of the most important EU decisions are taken by qualified majority voting, even if in practice unanimity is sought most of the time. Since November 2014, this has meant the support of 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the population is required to pass decisions in the Council of the EU. Britain’s exit will destroy the blocking minority of a northern liberal German-led coalition of states, and increase the potential for blocking minorities of southern Mediterranean countries. There is also the question of what to do with the 73 British MEP mandates, which currently form almost 10% of all European Parliament seats.

Finally, there is the ‘small’ matter of foreign and defence policy. Perhaps here there are more grounds for continuity given the history of ‘outsourcing’ key decisions to NATO, whose membership remains unchanged. Furthermore, Theresa May appears to have realised that turning defence cooperation into a bargaining chip to attract Eastern European countries would backfire. Yet, with Britain gone, the EU is currently abuzz with discussions about greater military cooperation, particularly in procurement and research, suggesting that Brexit can also offer opportunities for the EU.

So, whether it is the balance between euro ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, multi-speed Europe, the EU budget, voting blocs or foreign policy, Brexit is forcing EU leaders into a load of discussions that many of them would rather avoid. This helps explain why there is clear regret among countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, at seeing such a key partner leave. It also explains why the EU has turned inwards to deal with the consequences of Brexit and why, although they need to be managed, the actual negotiations with London rank fairly low on the list of priorities in Brussels. British politicians, negotiators, and the general public would do well to take note of this.

Ivaylo Iaydjiev is a former adviser to the Bulgarian government. He is currently a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

0800 7318496