The EU isn't too big to fail, but it is too important to

Contrary to Nigel Lawson, the EU is not a monstrous bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is failing.

I spoke at the Annual European University Institute "State of the Union" conference yesterday. It takes place in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, adorned with 500 year old frescoes commemorating the first Florentine Republic after the expulsion of the Medicis – a good reminder that the process of European integration has deep roots.

There was a lot of realism – about the continuing challenge of the euro crisis, about the long-term nature of structural reform, about the gulf between too many citizens and European governance. But there was also a deep determination to preserve the gains of the past – for example in President Barroso’s speech – and wherever I went, a desire to see Britain as part of the European future. In my contribution, in the session on governance and institutions, I made five points.

First, that the debate about legitimacy and efficiency/delivery is happening all over the world. The Chinese are thinking about it; the Americans are debating it in the discussion of 'gridlock'; it is part of the debate in the Arab world as governments elected after the revolutions of 2011 are faced with real economic and social choice. In Europe, legitimacy has two elements – the 'one nation one vote' principle embodied in the European Council, and the 'one person one vote' principle in the European Parliament. The danger for the EU – as elsewhere – is whether legitimacy AND efficiency is missing.

Second, the protest politics in Britain, Italy and elsewhere, is not just (or primarily) about frustration with the EU; it speaks fundamentally to frustration with the traditional politics of centre-right and centre-left, and the desire for a new political alternative. For me, that is about rejuvenating social democracy, but there is no point in hiding that a traditional social democratic offer of social justice through state redistribution is not going to work or sell.

Third, the EU’s biggest problem is its delivery deficit, not its democratic deficit. This is not a new tune of mine, but while some of the EU’s work is very good indeed – I have just spent two days in Brussels preparing for my International Rescue Committee role and learning about some outstanding European development work in crisis-hit places – the policy mix in response to the economic crisis is still some way from bringing closer the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t buy the Nigel Lawson argument that the EU is a monstrous and marauding bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is out of kilter with the economic needs in a balance sheet recession.

Fourth, there is a pressing and outstanding agenda for Europe’s soon to be 28 members, beyond the euro crisis. I won’t rehearse again what this covers, but the sense that there is traction on youth unemployment and migration is encouraging.

Finally, the twin narratives of Europe’s development so far – peace on the continent, and reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall - need to be supplemented by a clarion call that Europe’s purpose is to help its citizens achieve prosperity and security in a 21st century marked by shifts in global power. This cannot be done at national level alone, nor by ad-hoc alliances around the globe to take forward trade promotion or security cooperation.

I don’t buy the argument that Europe is 'too big to fail'. But I do buy the case that it is too important to fail.

David Miliband is the incoming President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

This piece originally appeared on his blog

The EU flag flies in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.