French economy minister Emmanuel Macron addresses the opening of 7th Annual Entrepreneurs conference at the economy ministry in Paris on November 17, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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French economy minister: The UK can't succeed outside the EU

Emmanuel Macron warns that leaving the European Union would reduce Britain to the status of "Jersey or Guernsey". 

Two and a half months ago, Emmanuel Macron was named France's economy minister by François Hollande with a mission to dramatically reform his country's scelerotic labour market. The 36-year-old former Rothschild banker, denounced by the Socialist Party's left as a "copy-and-paste Tony Blair", is in London this week to discuss his policy programme and the future of the EU with politicians and others.

After meeting his British equivalent Vince Cable and Labour's Chuka Umunna yesterday (he meets George Osborne today), Macron delivered a briefing to journalists at the French ambassador's residence in Kensington. Speaking in fluent English, without the aid of notes, he declared that it was now "impossible" to be a "classical socialist" since the need for fiscal consolidation meant the traditional option of ramping up public spending was no longer available. Instead, he said, the French government had embarked on an "ambitious" programme of structural reform, including new tax incentives for business, the liberalisation of the 35-hour week and the loosening of Sunday trading laws, to "increase opportunity" and "restore equality of chance". “Normally we spend public money. We are doing exactly the opposite, not because we are in favour of political suicide but because we see it as a unique opportunity to do the job [of reform]," he said, vowing to "attack monopolies" in order to "restore attractiveness to risk takers". 

But he emphasised that supply-side reform had to be coupled with demand-side investment in order to succeed. He urged Germany to take advantage of its healthy public finances and stimulate growth through higher spending. "I'm not in a situation to lecture the Germans but I think that it is good for Germany and for everyone else if they invest," he said, calling for the use of €50bn from the European Stability Mechanism to fund new capital projects. He cited the experience of Portugal, where all "possible reforms" had been made but growth had failed to return, as a lesson in the limits of austerity. 

It was on the question of British EU membership, however, that Macron was most blunt. After he declared that France's future lay in Europe, I asked him whether he was troubled by the possibility of UK withdrawal as a result of the referendum promised by David Cameron in 2017. He replied:

I think the UK is a sensible nation with rational people ... Unless it wants to be Jersey or Guernsey I don't see how the UK can succeed outside Europe.

He also warned that Britain could not expect to retain access to the single market if it left the EU and told the French press corps: "There should be no scaremongering. Britain's fate is definitely in Europe, nowhere else. The question is how they want to exercise their role in Europe and what kind of Europe they want." 

At the close of the briefing, Macron, who discussed the importance of EU membership with Umunna, promised to try and "mobilise" Osborne for positive action on a European level. On that, as well as his domestic reform agenda, he will need much luck. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle