European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso gives a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The EU's wise advice to the UK shouldn't be ignored

It's not up to the unelected commission to determine Britain's policies, but it has reason and evidence on its side. 

You can't accuse the EU of lacking chutzpah. Less than a day after David Cameron denounced it as "too big, too bossy, too interfering", the European Commission has called on the government to change its economic policy - and much else. In a document released last night, it urges Cameron to raise taxes on high-value properties, to increase the supply of housing, to adjust the Help to Buy scheme, to make childcare more affordable, to raise capital spending and to improve the implementation of Universal Credit. A day before the state opening of parliament, it adds up to a draft Queen's speech. 

Here are a few extracts:

Action is needed to further boost the supply of houses - by creating appropriate incentives to raise supply at the local level. The authorities should continue to monitor house prices and mortgage indebtedness and stand ready to deploy appropriate measures, including adjusting the Help to Buy 2 (loan guarantee) scheme, if deemed necessary.

Reforms to the taxation of land and property should be considered to alleviate distortions in the housing market. At the moment, increasing property values are not translated into higher property taxes as the property value roll has not been updated since 1991 and taxes on higher value property are lower than on lower value property in relative terms due to the regressivity of the current rates and bands within the council tax system.

The commission's proposals have prompted a predictably sardonic riposte from the Treasury: "As one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, we always listen to the commission's recommendations with interest." Conservative eurosceptic Dominic Raab said: "Having helped bankrupt the eurozone and delivered the biggest anti-EU election results in history, the chancellor can be forgiven for treating the commission’s advice as spam when it arrives in his inbox." 

But while it's not up to the unelected commission to determine Britain's fiscal policies (although like bodies such as the IMF, the OECD and every think-tank going, it was merely offering advice), the inconvenient truth for the Tories is that every one of its suggestions is entirely sensible. 

It would be better for the government to make property more affordable by building more homes, rather than subsidising mortgages. It is absurd that the council tax bands have not been updated since they were first introduced in 1991, despite house prices rising by more than 250 per cent since then. There is a strong moral and economic case for increasing taxes on land and property. (Wealth taxes are progressive and hard to avoid, and benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into more productive industries.) It is lamentable that there are just 5,910 people claiming Universal Credit (994,090 short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million) despite the government spending £612m on the programme. 

That it takes the profoundly flawed EU to tell the government all of this is the real cause for outrage. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.