Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz. One of these men could be our Obama. Photo: Getty
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It’s time for a European presidential election

A Luxembourger you’ve never heard of thinks you elected him president. It’s just possible that the system isn’t working.

Consider a tale of two continents. 

On the one hand we have Europe, where the citizenry are disaffected, disillusioned, and on the whole a bit pissed off about the idea of taking orders from Brussels. As a result, in the recent parliamentary elections, eurosceptic parties topped the polls in several countries, not least Britain and France. The Europeans are not, on the whole, a happy bunch.

They could learn a few things, then, from their contented and industrious peers in the nearby, and suspiciously similar, continent of Europe. There, the citizenry are glued to their smartphones, breathlessly awaiting the appointment of the next president of the European Commission.

Leading the pack right now is one Jean-Claude Juncker, a federalist from Luxembourg, who one school of thought believes to be the democratically elected candidate. Juncker was, after all, the choice of the centre-right European People’s Party, which topped last month’s parliamentary elections (and was not even on the ballot in Britain). So strong is his mandate that he’s claimed that not giving him the job, as national leaders including David Cameron are determined not to do, would be the end of European democracy as we know it. “The voters would then know there was no need next time for them to bother voting,” he thundered, “because the parties would have broken their promises.”

So we have one Europe, where the voters are up in arms about the EU, and another where they’re up in arms about those standing in its way. These two Europes have somehow managed to occupy the exact same position on the planet without any sign that either knows that the other exists. If this was an episode of Star Trek, there’d be smoke pouring out of the walls and a rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum. 

Juncker is not entirely out on a limb here: the German press, at least, are largely agreed with his claim that he’s been elected. This was, after all, meant to be the election that finally created the Europe-wide demos that’s so signally lacking at the moment. Historically, appointments to the European Commission were simply a stitch up between national governments, but the rules were recently rewritten to state that the powers-that-be had to take note of the European parliament when choosing.

To make that easier, before the election, each of the four biggest party groupings chose a named candidate (Spitzenkandidaten, if you’re a fan of compound German). The thinking was that allowing people to ‘vote’ for a ‘president’ would turn this into a proper European election, rather than 28 national ones. There were presidential debates and everything.

There’s just one tiny problem with this brave attempt at geeing up Europe-wide political debate: nobody noticed. There are 500 million people in Europe; roughly 0.02 per cent of them tuned in for the debates. No, that isn’t a rounding error.

All this should worry those of us who rather like the idea of the European Union. There’s never been a “single most off-putting aspect of the EU” competition, as far as I can tell; if there was, though, a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg going round claiming to be the elected president of Europe on the grounds that [citation needed] would be in with a really good shot at the prize.

So here’s a radical idea: let’s stop mucking about and do this properly. Let the public choose the next head of the European Commission. No more arguments about unelected bureaucrats; no more stitch ups between a handful of national leaders. Let’s have a proper presidential election.

Such an idea should appeal to those who want to see more integration, if only because it’d create the Europe-wide politics that’s so entirely lacking at the moment. But it would also (no, really) have advantages for those who are less keen on the EU. At long last they’d be able to vote against it, without any one mistaking it for a protest vote or an attack of a national government. Electing a sceptic as commission president could stop ‘ever closer union’ in a way a dozen local Farages never could.

This is extraordinarily unlikely to happen, of course. National governments won’t have it, because making the EU more democratic risks making them weaker. It’d require another nightmarish period of constitutional naval-gazing, of the sort literally nobody has the stomach for. Even Juncker would probably vote no, if only because he’d be less likely to win an actual election.

But if the European project is to survive, we need to find a way of creating a European politics to go with it. Something like this has to be the end game. The current set up’s not working for anyone. 


Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/