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.