Tag Archives: UK

Of cakes and their consumption – reflections on the UK’s position within the EU

Among the general maelstrom that is the crisis in the Eurozone, one of the most fascinating things to observe has been the United Kingdom’s ever more apparent marginalisation within the European Union. Put differently, the recent actions of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government have won it few friends within the EU.

On the one hand, the UK is issuing near-constant exhortations (or should that be demands?) for the Eurozone to put its house in order; after all, with half our trade going to the EU, there is little prospect of our ailing recovery gathering pace once more while the Eurozone remains locked in crisis. Yet at the same time, the Government has flatly refused to contribute to commit British taxpayers money to either the EFSF or the ESM. While this may be understandable from a domestic political perspective (after all what would the Daily Mail say?), it cuts little ice with other EU member-states, especially Germany, who are ultimately underwriting the massive bailout loans needed. Indeed, it’s rather akin to the UK ‘having its cake and eating it’. Is it therefore really surprising that President Sarkozy lost his temper with David Cameron at the EU crisis summit in October?

On the other hand, persistent rumblings about the desirability of a ‘repatriation’ of powers from Brussels, combined with the recent parliamentary vote on whether a referendum should be held on EU membership, which produced the biggest Tory rebellion for some twenty years, makes the claim that the UK remains at the heart of the EU look frankly risible.

Of course, the attempt to ‘have it both ways’ reflects a long-established in British European policy, which goes back to the Treaty of Rome – the UK does not want further integration, but neither does it want other countries to gain an advantage from integrating themselves. Thus, the UK countered the establishment of the EEC in 1957 with the formation of EFTA – until it realised that the latter was very much a second-rate organisation and it decided to defect to the former. The UK long argued in favour of unanimity as the method of voting in the Council of Ministers – because it would make it easier to block unwelcome proposals from other member states. And as many in the old western European EU member-states will testify, the UK was such a strong proponent of enlargement in 2004/7 precisely because it knew that the inevitable change in the dynamics of the EU associated with this would dilute moves towards further integration. As ever, the essential truth of this view is confirmed by none other than Sir Humphrey Appleby, who explains the UK’s support of enlargement in Yes Minister thus: “the more members it [the EEC] has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes”. When Jim Hacker chides Sir Humphrey for his cynicism, he responds, with characteristic nonchalance, “We call it diplomacy, Minister”.

But the indications are gathering that this well-trodden path of British diplomacy in Europe, together with the relentless pursuit of short-term interests, has had its day; indeed, it is now becoming counterproductive. Already in 1994, the German CDU/CSU published a proposal for a ‘two-speed’ European Union (the so-called Schäuble-Lamers paper), with a core of members pursuing greater integration and a looser periphery of other states. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the central idea of this paper was reflected in the CDU’s new proposals for deeper integration among the members of the Eurozone, which were agreed at its Leipzig party congress this week.

So Britain will already structurally be on the periphery; but more than that, there has been a distinct change in tone within the German political elite when it comes to the UK. Whereas in the past, German politicians were at pains to appeal to the UK, those days are gone. Already back in September 2011, the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) gave an interview with Der Spiegel, in which he was quite blunt about the UK’s role in Europe. It is worth quoting what he said verbatim (my translation):

Schröder: … In any case, it’s not the new member-states who are causing the real problems.

SPIEGEL: Then who?

Schröder: The biggest problems are created by Britain. Britain is not in the Euro. But the British always want to be involved in decision-making regarding a common economic area. The two things just do not go together. And secondly, the British have been extremely reluctant about any kind of further integration, and that is putting it very diplomatically.

SPIEGEL: You mean that they simply blocked any proposals to this effect?

Schröder: Exactly.

And only this week, Volker Kauder, the influential leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary party in the Bundestag delivered a pugnacious speech at the CDU’s Leipzig congress. In it, he singled out the UK for especial criticism, pointing out that, as a member of the EU, the British DID bear direct responsibility for the Eurozone’s success. And in the context of Germany’s proposals for a tax on financial transaction (vigorously opposed by the City), he declared (again, my translation) “Only looking out for your own interests and not being prepared to contribute at all – that cannot be the message that we allow the British to get away with”.

These are not fringe politicians, and such public statements give an indication that Germany has probably lost patience with the UK and is no longer prepared to make any significant allowances for its particular historical position within the EU. That of course has major implications for the future: there are tricky negotiations around the corner regarding the next EU budget, and it is difficult to see countries lining up willing to defend the UK’s budget rebate. But on other issues too which really matter to the UK – liberalisation of energy markets, implementation of the single market, CAP reform – it will be others defining the agenda, not the British Government.

At the end of October 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote in the Observer that “Being shoved to the margins, or retreating there voluntarily, would be economic suicide”. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly as if that is precisely where we are already.

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Making Sense of the Electoral Reform Referendum

Aston Centre for Europe will host a lunchtime forum to discuss:

BETWEEN ‘FIRST PAST THE POST’ AND ‘ALTERNATIVE VOTE’: MAKING SENSE OF THE ELECTORAL REFORM REFERENDUM ON 5 MAY

13.00 – 13.45, Tuesday, 3 May 2011 in Room G1

Introductory Statements:

Dr Ed Turner (Politics and International Relations)

Professor Simon Green (Politics and International Relations)

Chair: Professor John Gaffney (Politics and International Relations)

Followed by an open discussion.

On 5 May, the first UK-wide referendum since 1975 will be held on the question of electoral reform. Voters will be asked to choose between the existing, ‘First Past The Post’ system, and the so-called ‘Alternative Vote’ system. The implications of this referendum are potentially significant, as it potentially completely changes the way we elect our national representatives. This ACE Forum will provide an opportunity to consider the arguments for and against this important issue.

All staff and students are welcome to attend – just turn up on the day!

Student Guest Post: Does Diversity Aid Representation?

This is another insightful student guest post by First Year Politics and International Relations student Horatio Georgestone.

The cabinet is supposedly at the heart of our representative democracy in the UK. The best political talents are appointed by the Prime Minister to create policy that represents the best interests of our diverse society. The coalition cabinet comprises of Twenty-nine. Twenty-three cabinet members are millionaires (79%), twenty are Oxbridge educated (69%), twenty-five are male (86%), and twenty-eight are white (97%). This does not paint a picture that is in any way reflective of the diverse, British population that it intends to represent.  However, does this lack of diversity prevent the cabinet from being an effective representative body? Does it actually matter if few cabinet ministers are from a working class background or that most of them are Oxbridge educated? Why isn’t the cabinet more diverse?

The common saying goes: “a doctor does not need to have malaria to be able to treat it”. True as this may be in a medical sense, does this actually follow in a political sense? Can a body of politicians effectively deal with the problems faced by a young teen growing up in a council estate in East London if none of them have ever experienced anything similar? Would plans to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) go ahead if there were many politicians who once relied on collecting it themselves? If the EMA had previously bought them stationary, paid for their transport, or incentivised their attendance at school; how many would still call for it to be scrapped? There is an increased use of think tanks and similar organisations to assess public opinion. However, can these organisations ever be an effective substitute to cabinet ministers actually having firsthand experience?

Is it increasingly difficult for a person of a non- Oxbridge educated, working class background to make it to the top of British politics? When John major became Prime Minister in 1990, it was an illustration that a person’s background could not prevent them from excelling in politics. It signified an era in British Politics where social mobility was rife; an age where someone who had not even gone to university could become Prime Minister. Two decades later, have we progressed or regressed in terms of social mobility? Are we seeing a greater number of cabinet ministers from working class backgrounds? Are women still under-represented within the cabinet?  Is the cabinet being drawn from a wider range of ethnic groups?  The composition of the current cabinet does not seem to suggest much progression.

In the last labour led cabinet, John Prescott and Alan Johnson were both cabinet ministers who had completed incredible personal journeys. Who would have predicted that Prescott, a working class boy who failed his 11+ exams in 1949, would go on to become Deputy Prime Minister? When Johnson was stacking shelves at Tesco or delivering mail as a postman, who would have guessed that one day he would be Home Secretary? The concern is that top flight of politics has become less accessible for people from a large section of society to reach and those who create policy are increasingly being drawn from a narrow social elite. The ensuing issue is this; can a narrow social elite effectively represent the best interests of a diverse modern British society?

Undoubtedly, the role of a Cabinet Minister is challenging. The world of economics and social policy is tricky and requires the selection of our best minds. Is it the case that the UK’s best minds all originate from a small section of society? Could it be that we do not have enough women, ethnic minorities or people of working class background with intellects that are up to the job? In reality, this is highly unlikely.

A more plausible argument may be that the system of selection favours people from a particular social group who have access to contacts. The party machine selects which candidates will contest safe seats and the Prime Minister appoints Cabinet Ministers. Perhaps a lack of connections plays an integral role in isolating candidates outside of a social elite, who find it difficult to network and obtain the contacts they need to progress in politics. Family ties and university ‘hook ups’ both play a part in boosting a person’s chances of rising through the ranks in politics. There is no question that ability will play a role in political progression. However, at the point where there are many talented competing candidates, having a few contacts certainly wouldn’t harm a candidate’s chances.

Returning to why we may require diversity amongst our representatives, I would say this. The study of politics can often lead to the reduction of citizens to rational actors; factors that fit into an intellectual exercise. In the pursuit of deficit reduction or efficiency savings it is possible for policy makers to overlook how citizens feel. There may be endless intellectual reasons why a specific proposal may be a good idea in theory, but in practise, the success of that proposal will depend on the feelings of the public that receive it. The coalition cabinet may feel that in theoretical terms, tackling the budget deficit quickly is the right thing to do. However, do they really understand how cutting so deep, so quickly has affected the most vulnerable in our society? Having a diverse mix of ministers who can personally relate with how sections of society will react to a particular policy could clearly be advantageous in establishing a cabinet that truly understands the public.

Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” concept illustrates the importance of policy makers being able to communicate with the public effectively. What could potentially be an interesting project, is failing precisely for the fact that the coalition cabinet has not been able to effectively convey what it means to the public. We live in an age where policy makers are able to release lots of information without really connecting with vast sections of society. There are so many means of relaying information, but what is lacking is the understanding of how to reach people.  Losing someone like Andy Coulson who could genuinely relate to members of the wider public and recognised how to communicate with them must have been a big blow. The role of spin doctors is increasingly important when you have a cabinet that struggles to connect with the public.

The final advantage of having a more diverse cabinet may be the ability of wider sections of the public to identify with those who are at the top of British Politics. Not only does this give them an incentive to participate in the political system, it may inspire some to believe that one day it could be them in that position. Removing the stigma of top flight politics being reserved for a social elite may serve to increase respect for and trust in the political system amongst the wider public.

In closing, there may be benefit in a cabinet that is reflective of a diverse British public. It would be a strong indication of social mobility; and it would be useful in terms of issues relating to communication and identity. It is unclear why in the two decades since Major; the cabinet does not seem to have made much progress in terms of social mobility. Perhaps there are issues, other than ability that can act as an obstruction to political progression for some.

Shabana Mahmood MP to talk to Aston students

All Aston students and staff are warmly invited to a talk by Shabana Mahmood, Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Ladywood, on Friday 28th January at 2pm in room MB550.

Shabana will speak about “Nine months of the coalition government”.

She was first elected to Parliament (representing the constituency which includes Aston University) in 2010, having previously been a barrister. Shabana was born and raised in Birmingham, and was president of her college students’ union. She was one of the first Muslim women, and Asian women, MPs. Unusually for a new MP, Shabana was appointed Shadow Home Office Minister by Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader.

There will be plenty of opportunity after the talk to put questions to Shabana.

Shabana is also advertising two placements for Aston students, one in her Westminster Office and one in her constituency office. Students on placement next year should already have details. She has kindly agreed to extend the deadline for these until after her talk.

The UK and India: Dimensions of a Relationship

Sir Michael Arthur KCMG will be delivering two talks at the Aston Centre for Europe on Tuesday 7 December 2010. The first will be a discussion of UK-India relations, to be held at the following time:

12.00 – 13.00, Tuesday, 7 December 2010 in Room MB550

Sir Michael has recently retired from the Diplomatic Service as HM Ambassador to Germany. Prior to that, from 2003-7, he served as British High Commissioner to India. Sir Michael will also deliver a Masterclass for MA students on the same day.

What Iain Duncan Smith needs to learn from Germany

Iain Duncan Smith announced last week that the unemployed will, under some circumstances, be required to undertake unpaid “community work”, with strict sanctions for those who fail to comply.  His view what that this would help people re-integrate into the labour market, by getting into the habit of work.

Interesting, a similar mechanism was included in Germany’s welfare arrangements as a result of the Hartz reforms (to the welfare state), introduced in 2005: the so-called “One Euro jobs”, or, in administrative German, “Work opportunities with additional expenses payment”.  These have been roundly condemned by Germany’s National Audit Office, in a leaked report this week.

The One Euro jobs are offered to the unemployed by job centres.  Only social or public enterprises (such as local authorities, charities, schools or churches) can offer these, with such examples as reading to children, keeping an eye on quarrelling kids on the school bus, or picking up rubbish.  The idea, similar to Mr Duncan Smith’s proposals, is that everybody wins: the community wins, because useful tasks are performed that would otherwise be missed out.  Also, the unemployed worker wins, because s/he gets extra money (usually between one and 2.5 Euros per hour), without benefit entitlements being affected, and also gets social contact, professional experience and extra knowledge.

Unfortunately, the respected National Audit Office found that the One Euro jobs failed on almost all counts.  In particular, there were found to be significant “substitution effects”, whereby the unemployed ended up replacing employees doing the same work, but of course with proper pay, terms and conditions; this was particularly damaging to private sector enterprises offering the same services (for instance, litter-picking, or helping move public offices).  They also found that in most cases the jobs weren’t suitable to help people reintegrate to the labour market.

These findings reinforced a recent study by the Centre for European Economic Research, which found that those who had undertaken a One Euro job were actually less likely to find regular employment than those who had, possibly because of the jobs were perceived as a stigma by employers.

The German government is now reviewing the One Euro job programme, in particular involving trade unions and employers in scrutinising the placements made by each job centre.

It is vitally important that the British government taken some time to evaluate the German experience, before embarking upon a course of a action that will lead to see proper jobs replaced by unpaid labour in the public and private sectors, while damaging the interests of the long-term unemployed at the same time.

A version of this article appeared on the policy blog Left Foot Forward.

Cameron’s EU Budget ‘Victory’

The Prime Minister David Cameron claims he has “succeeded spectacularly” in seeing off a potential 6% EU budget increase. Mr Cameron has spent much of Friday taking credit for putting together an alliance of 12 mostly old, rich Member States in favour of a smaller 2.9% increase in the Community budget. Even during the present period of self-imposed austerity, the size of the increase in the budget is actually rather uninteresting – after all, the Union spends a fraction more than 1% of the aggregate GDP of the EU-27. This post is also not concerned with the rights and wrongs of whether rich Member States should really be repatriating funds away from assisting poorer ones.

What is interesting about Mr Cameron’s grandstanding today are three things.

First, what Mr Cameron has provided us with a textbook example of how Member States (and the UK in particular) portray the business of Brussels negotiations. In this game, the Government stalwartly defends the national interests of [British] taxpayers from attempts by dastardly Brussels bureaucrats to suck in ever more money for their hare-brained, money-wasting schemes. Needless to add, every penny that goes to Brussels can’t be spent on “schools n’hospitals”, “frontline services” and so on back home. Governments “win” at summits – no less than “spectacularly” in this case – although Mr Cameron’s announcement is hardly the news of a great victory on the plains of Waterloo that his rhetoric implies.

Second, Mr Cameron and his allies have demonstrated publicly that Member States really believe that the only “fair” Union budget is one where everybody gets out more or less what they pay in. Yet why should this be the case? Do we expect to get back from the State in services EXACTLY to the value of what we pay in taxes? No – at least not if one is reasonably sane and sober at the time that the question is asked. Following on this logic, one might ask: “why contribute to the budget at all?” Cameron’s claim is tedious pub-talk populism at best and reminds me of that boorish class of individual who “doesn’t mind paying tax” but it’s “what they spend it on” that he objects to. Insert here: housing benefits for “layabouts”, wars in Afghanistan, “waste”, NHS managers etc. etc. What do such people expect? A questionnaire from HM Treasury asking the respondent to tick which areas of State activity he is willing to support and by how much?

And the third point is that for all the talk about eurosceptic Tories and pro-Europe Liberals (or Labour supporters), British governments basically all act in the same way in Brussels. It’s not hard to imagine a stern faced Gordon Brown emerging from the smokeless negotiating chambers of the Council asserting that he has saved “£450 million pooounds” or similar which can now be “invested” in “hard-working families”. What about lazy families? Who will take care of them? Answers on a postcard please.

Housing benefit cuts: how the government is shaping the argument

It’s been an interesting time for those of us who follow welfare politics. On the one hand, we’ve seen the axing of child benefit payments for higher earners, and now further, hefty cuts to housing benefit, on top of those announced in June. On the other, the government is apparently to embrace a greater degree of universalism on pensions. In terms of Realpolitik, this isn’t much of a riddle – turnout at the last general election was highest amongst pensioners (76%), and lowest amongst the less well-off (social classes D and E had turnout of 57%) and those who rented accommodation (55%).

But there are, it seems to me, there are several interesting points to come out of this. In future pieces, I’ll write about the likely costs elsewhere to the public sector through these cuts, and the likely effect of housing policy changes upon our welfare settlement. For now, I want to focus upon how the government is trying to win the arguments for these cuts.

There’s a lively debate about when, and under what circumstances, cutting welfare payments may be popular, and what politicians can do to influence this. An assumption that permeates much academic writing on this subject is that cutting benefits is usually unpopular. There is the least resistance when there is a lower number of beneficiaries, and when they have less access to the political process (hence the relevance of lower turnout amongst poorer people).

To build public support for the measure, the government’s strategy has been pretty clear-cut: to paint a picture of housing benefit which will be deeply unattractive to the general public. This started prior to the announcement, with ubiquitous stories in the media about particular families who appeared to be getting very generous support with their rent, had no desire to become active in the labour market, and were photographed, slouching or beaming around a flat-screen television.

Latterly, in justifying the cuts, a similarly jaundiced picture has been painted. So Nick Clegg, at Prime Minister’s Questions, contrasted those who claimed Housing Benefit with those who
“go out to work, pay their taxes and play by the rules“
. This is a pretty hopeless representation of housing benefit –“the rules” dictate that people are perfectly entitled to claim housing benefit if they are on a low income, and a good many people on HB do go out to work. As the homeless charity Shelter pointed out, just 12% of housing benefit recipients are unemployed. In many of the remaining cases (i.e. excluding pensioners, parents of very young children, and the disabled), it is just that their work is insufficient to allow them enough money to live on whilst paying their rent.

Similarly, both Nick Clegg and David Cameron focused on the £400 weekly cap on housing benefit payments. In fact, this particular measure will apply to under 22,000 households, whereas some 774,000 households, according to the government’s own impact assessment, are likely to see their benefits drop as a result of reduction in rates to the 30th percentile within a Broad Rental Market Area (the area for which benefit levels are calculated).

It is perhaps no surprise that there is initial, abstract support for the government’s plans, which 57% of voters say they support. Whether the efforts to discredit the benefit and those who receive it are as successful once the full impact becomes clear remains to be seen.

Student Forum on the Spending Review – a Resounding Success

Our lunchtime Student Forum on the Comprehensive Spending Review was a resounding success, with some 90 students attending the discussion on 21 October. The highlight of the discussion was a presentation by Dr Anneliese Dodds, Lecturer in Public Policy at Aston University. The slides used in the discussion are posted here for those of you who have not managed to attend. Dr Dodds’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion and we look forward to the next set of events.

You can download Dr Dodds’s presentation here: The Comprehensive Spending Review — Autumn 2010(2)

Welcome to our new MA students

We are very pleased to welcome our new cohort of twelve Masters students this year. The students are taking part on the programme MA EU and International Relations, and the Double MA programme which is offered jointly with the Institut d’Etudes Politiques Lille. This semester’s lectures on European Security, International Relations and Research Methods have started, and the group is hard at already work in their MA students’ office, preparing their readings and class discussions.

This week, we will also welcome our new postgraduate student from Albania, who is taking part on our Professional Development course through a specially designed one semester programme for students from the European University Tirana. The students on this programme will take part in MA-level classes and will begin to prepare their MA thesis, before returning home to complete their degree.

In other MA student news, Luke John Davis (MA EU and International Relations in 2009-2010), has just returned from a Youth in Action Conference in Belgrade, Serbia, where he discussed problems of European integration with other students from across Europe.