Miliband is right to stand up to the energy companies' blackmail

Were trade unions threatening to plunge the country into darkness, Cameron would be calling in the troops.

Ed Miliband's promise to fix energy bills for 20 months if Labour win the 2015 election will remove some of the pressure that ordinary people across the country feel every day. Households are already paying £2bn more for their gas and electricity after the last hikes in November 2012. Now the energy companies are looking to add another £1.4bn onto bills this coming winter. This has added £300 to the average bill in this parliament. This cannot go on.

Immediately after Ed’s announcement, the usual shouts came that this was "meddling in the free market". "Back to the seventies" and "you can't beat supply and demand" echoed on. Let us put aside the fact that the average yearly growth in the 1970s, 2.88%, is more than the economy has grown in total since Quarter 3 2010. The energy market in this country is not a free market, it is a racket. Six multinational companies dominate, and in much of the country choice is reduced still further. These companies are now threatening blackouts if their profits are in any way challenged by an elected government. Were this a trade union threatening to plunge the country into darkness, Mr Cameron would be calling in the troops. Yet when it is time to challenge a private cartel about that classic seventies question, “who runs Britain?” this government is silent. 

Npower were first out of the traps on Tuesday, with their spokesman decrying these "easy answers", and that the "global market" would drive costs regardless of what they did. The biggest shareholders in Npower, or to give it its proper name Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk Npower plc, are a group of German towns and cities. In other words, the profits Npower extracts from the British people allow German municipalities to keep the rates down. The people of Middlesbrough are effectively paying rent to the people of Münster. It seems state intervention is acceptable when investing in your corporation, but bad when it seeks to limit your profits.

This confused attitude to the "free market" runs through all the "Big Six". Iberdrola, owners of Scottish Power, are kept liquid by €27bn in state backed loans and massive subsidies from the struggling Spanish government.  Both Centrica and Scottish and Southern Electric are receiving over £50m each in subsidies just for wind power. E.On’s decision whether or not to build a new biomass generator in Bristol was not dependent upon ‘market forces’, but how much tax-payer money the Department for Energy and Climate Change would promise it.

Perhaps the greatest example of state interference however is Électricité de France, EdF, controlled by the French state. They are the company that we are turning to to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Britain, which built the first commercial nuclear generator in the world at Calder Hall, must now wait on the whim of the French President.

Has it really come to this? That a country once the workshop of the world relies on the French to build its power stations? On the Danes to forge its turbines? On Norwegian gas to keep our lights on? Is Britain a ‘third world’ country that it has to beg for foreign investment to upgrade its infrastructure?

I welcome companies from all around the world who want to set up shop in Britain. This nation gains greatly from international firms bringing their skills and expertise here, and we are richer for it. Our membership of the European Union and good working relationship with our European neighbours is a key part of this attraction. But those meetings must always be as equals, not as supplicants.

The repeated refusal of the British state to back its own people has led to the basics of life; from water, to energy, to transport being sold off not to thousands of plucky entrepreneurs, but to American corporate titans, Chinese and Arab sovereign wealth funds, or the state-backed enterprises of our savvier European cousins. Rather than invest in our own youngsters, our own infrastructure, our own future, a small elite have skewed our economy not by accident, but by design. As Ed said on Tuesday, Britain can do better than this.

Andy McDonald is the Labour MP for Middlesbrough

The logo of the French electricity company EDF is pictured on a building of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant reactor in eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.