Guess what! Constructive engagement in Europe works

A new banking deal shows what can be achieved when Tory backbench wreckers aren't stealing the show.

The European Union has taken another small but significant step towards closer integration. Finance ministers have agreed to create a eurozone banking union – putting the largest banks in those countries that use the single currency directly under the supervision of the European Central Bank.

In principle, that will enable faster and more direct intervention in the event of a crisis. The deal is also supposed to limit European governments’ exposure to picking up the tab for any future bank failures.

Britain had a peculiar role in this chapter of crisis talks as a non-eurozone country that happens also to host the continent’s biggest financial centre. The UK government’s dilemma was that it needs to support the efforts of the rest of the EU in sorting out the mess in their banking system but without handing over regulatory powers that would put the City of London at a competitive disadvantage.

Some French and German politicians see the design of Europe’s post-crisis financial architecture as an opportunity to snatch London’s crown for Paris or Frankfurt. That impulse is reinforced by the view in much of continental Europe that the City is the ideological Mecca of a kind of rampant, greedy, profiteering approach to finance that caused the crisis in the first place.

To an extent, it plainly is. But the financial services industry also happens to be a vital strategic economic asset for Britain. It may not be very fashionable to admit it right now, but any UK government will see protecting the City’s status as a core part of its negotiating agenda in Europe.

On this occasion, George Osborne appears to have achieved his main goal, which was to ensure that British opinion is adequately represented in the new banking union’s decision-making process. Crudely speaking, the single currency members have accepted that decisions made by the European Banking Authority will need to be approved by a plurality of non-eurozone countries as well as a majority of eurozone ones. In other words, in theory, it won’t be possible for the single currency members to stitch up a plan that hobbles the City and then force it through against the will of non-euro members (i.e. Britain). That “double majority” protection was Osborne’s main demand going into the negotiations. He is now satisfied.

This deal sets an important precedent. Financial regulation is not the only area where Britain, as a non-eurozone country, needs to assert its interest and voting weight in European decision-making as the single currency members plough ahead with ever-closer integration. The planned Fiscal Union treaty agreed last December (from which David Cameron withdrew UK participation by waiving a symbolic veto) was the beginning of a process that redefines the EU as a political and economic project around the eurozone.

The obvious danger to Britain from that process is that the rules of the single market – the part of EU treaties that even ardent sceptics like – will be skewed by a caucus of single currency members in their select single currency meetings to the exclusion and detriment of the UK. Cameron has insisted that would be intolerable, but has yet to demonstrate how he might stop it from happening. This new banking union model with its “double majority” principle points to the kind of deal that might be struck in the future.

It is worth noting, however, that Britain was able to get this deal because other member states could be persuaded that their interests would ultimately be served by accommodating London’s request. Britain’s legitimate concerns about exclusion and the fact that the City is of strategic importance to the whole continent are points mostly well heeded in Brussels. London has never lost a major vote on a financial services point in the European Council and has never needed to wield a veto on the subject. It also helps that this issue was not ramped up by Tory MPs or the media into a point of zero-sum confrontation between heroic Albion and the wicked bureaucrats of Brussels. It just goes to show what can be achieved through constructive engagement and diplomacy.

None of these issues is going away. The main business of the current summit is to look at much broader proposals for deeper long-term eurozone integration. The overall trajectory is still towards a two-tier EU, with Britain in the outer layer. As today’s events have shown, that doesn’t have to mean second class membership. The real threat of exclusion and economic disadvantage doesn’t come from other countries harbouring conspiratorial grudges against Britain. It comes from Tory MPs and Ukip making it impossible for the Prime Minister to conduct realistic negotiations.

The Euro logo is seen in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.