EU-US free trade talks show why Britain is better off in

Few can seriously claim that UK on its own would have as much clout in trade negotiations as the whole of the EU.

Like it or not, David Cameron had a good win at the EU budget summit last week. After over 24 hours of caffeine-powered talks he got what he came for - a real terms cut in EU spending. That said, it is easy to overplay Cameron's role in the marathon talks. Germany's Angela Merkel was, as ever, the real dealmaker.

In any case, as Will Straw wrote last Friday, the budget deal is hardly something to celebrate. The budget headings that suffered the biggest cuts were "Global Europe" - which includes development spending - and investment in infrastructure projects. In contrast, despite being cut by 11 per cent, spending on the Common Agricultural Policy - possibly the worst and most wasteful of all EU policies - remains the largest single area of spending.

But while 99 per cent of the summit media coverage was about rehearsing centuries-old cliches about European diplomacy - in last week's case, Britain screwed the French by making a deal with the Germans - the importance of the EU budget was actually pretty low. In fact, while over 24 hours were spent haggling over how Europe would spend just over €900bn of its own money, leaders spent a few minutes and several pages of the summit communique talking about something of far greater significance to the EU's future.

The importance of Barack Obama's launch of formal negotiations aimed at agreeing the world's biggest ever bilateral trade deal during his State of the Union speech to Congress yesterday, dwarves the endless debates in Brussels on rebates, "own resources", and the difference in funding for Pillars 1 and 2.

It hasn't happened overnight. Since autumn 2011, diplomats have been working behind the scenes on preparing the ground for a EU/US trade talks. Full negotiations on a deal looking not just on the elimination of tariff barriers but also on harmonising regulatory and technical standards for products could generate 2 per cent of GDP on its own. EU officials think that, by itself, a US trade deal could translate into €275bn per year for the European economy and two million new jobs.

The EU - as both its supporters and critics would agree - is not just about the single market, but its status as the world's largest market is a valuable and, so far, relatively under-used commodity. At the moment, just four of the EU's 29 trade deals are with countries from the G20, and those four are with South Korea, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. But the EU is now devoting increasing amounts of political capital to trade. An FTA was agreed with Singapore in December while a deal with Canada is expected to be completed imminently. Negotiations with Japan are expected to be launched in Tokyo in April, meaning that the EU will spend the next year brokering trade deals with the two largest world economies. In contrast to the EU's budget talks, there's nothing inward looking about that.

It is also a welcome sign that leaders are recognising that trade is the single most effective alternative to austerity. The collapse of the Doha round of WTO trade talks in 2005 followed by the financial crisis did real damage to world trade and to the European economy. One of the little-noticed developments in economic policy in recent years has been the glut of protectionist measures. The World Trade Organisation stated earlier this year that only 18 per cent of the trade restricting measures adopted by G20 countries since 2008 have been scrapped, amounting to a total loss of 3 per cent of world trade - equivalent to some €350bn.

But while the drive towards trade marks a decisive shift in priorities by the EU, it is also hugely significant to the debate on Britain's continued EU membership and to the Conservative Party's attitude to Europe.

One of the common lines of attack from the 'better off out' brigade is that, shorn of its EU shackles, Britain would be able to go around agreeing its own free trade deals. In response, one of the most convincing argument in favour of Britain being at the heart of Europe is that together we're stronger. In the EU we are one of the most powerful players in a bloc of 27 countries and 500 million people. Outside, we are, at best, a medium-sized power. When it comes to dealing with the likes of the US and Japan, few can seriously claim that Britain on its own would have as much negotiating clout as the whole of Europe.

Besides, an EU pursuing a free trade agenda should be like manna from heaven for most moderate Tories. It should also pacify those who grumble that the EU should be about trade, not political union. At the very least, if the EU continues the shift towards using its muscle to drive international trade deals it will becoming increasingly difficult for Conservative eurosceptics to maintain that we are better off out.

A couple of days before last week's summit, the Europe minister, David Lidington, told reporters that, come 2017, he and David Cameron wanted to be "campaigning with enthusiasm for a 'yes' vote". On his wish list, alongside less EU regulation and a liberalisation of the services sector, was the "fantastic prize" of a transatlantic trade deal. In Lidington's words, failing to go for it would be "betraying future generations". Cameron himself said today that an EU/US agreement would "create jobs on both sides of the Atlantic and make our countries more prosperous." It looks as though his wish may yet be granted.

It goes without saying that a transatlantic trade agreement is far from a fait accompli. Both sides like to subsidise large parts of their economy - particularly farming - and both will be under pressure from powerful internal lobby groups hoping to strangle the baby before it is born. But the EU and US have, nonetheless, made a bold statement of intent which could eventually lead to a seismic change in the world economy.

Ben Fox is a reporter for EU Observer. He writes in a personal capacity

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso speaks following a summit with US President Barack Obama as European Council President Herman Van Rompuy looks on. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.