Lots to cry about for the young. Photo: Ute Grabowsky
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George Osborne's Budget is an attack on the young

Don't vote, don't get.

Perhaps the young should blame themselves. Only 43 per cent of under-25s voted in the general election, compared with 78 per cent of over-65s. Now George Osborne has shown them the ugly consequences: fail to vote and, especially in an age of austerity, you make yourself an easy target for politicians.

That is the message from the Chancellor’s budget. Housing benefit has been abolished for under-21s. The introduction of a living wage (albeit rather less spectacular than it seems) does not apply to under-25s. Effectively this means people will be regarded as “young” – and paid accordingly – until the age of 25, rather than 21 today, the age when the young person’s minimum wage is applicable until.

And, to particular opprobrium, it has been announced that maintenance grants will be replaced by maintenance loans from 2016-17 – meaning that the poorest students will accrue more debt than the richest ones. At least the maintenance loans will exceed the grants available today, so disadvantaged students will have access to more funds than is currently the case, which is why Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, did not condemn the move on access grounds.

Yet there is more bad news in higher education. The government has announced that there will be a consultation into whether the point at which tuition fees are paid back £21,000 – should rise in line with inflation, as was previously planned. If the threshold is frozen for five years, as is being mooted, it means that graduates earning 12 per cent less in real terms will have to endure an extra 9 per cent marginal tax rate. This regressive policy risks undoing the great progressive improvement of the tuition fee changes enacted by the Coalition: that a new graduate on £21,000 has to pay back none of their loan compared with £540 a year under the old system. And it points to a wider intergenerational injustice: we are constantly told that indulgences to pensioners, like the triple-lock, free TV licenses and the winter fuel allowance cannot be taken away without sufficient notice. Yet the terms of under which young people pay back their tuition fee loans now face being changed retrospectively. 

So there is plenty for young people to get angry about in the budget. They had better get used to it: with no sign of the turnout gap between old and young diminishing and an ageing population, the young are becoming even easier to ignore. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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