Once again the UK has shown herself to be a good European. By asking to stay out of the banking union, the UK has spared the rest of the EU the complication and the danger of having to regulate and stand behind the very large and sometimes wayward UK banks.
The UK stayed out of the Euro. This saved the Euro from catastrophe during the Credit Crunch. Then as now the UK saved the EU by its decision to be offshore from the full EU arrangements. The Euro may well have been lost had the currency scheme had the excessive UK state debts and the overmighty UK banks to contend with as markets tested the structure. The rest of the EU would not want to have to stand behind RBS and the other state financed UK banks.
Just look at the stresses the banks of Ireland, the property crash of Spain and the state finances of Greece have imposed on the Euro. The numbers for UK banks, UK property losses and state debts are so much larger than any of these. Our property and banking boom and bust would have been worse if it had been supercharged by membership of the Euro.
So far so good. The banking union is designed for the 17 members of the Euro. The UK government claims to have negotiated so that the UK will opt out of the new system. The UK will not have to accept all the rules and regulations the ECB decides to impose on Euro area banks. To prevent the European Banking Authority repeating all the ECB rules and imposing them on the rest of the EU members, there will be a double lock. The Banking Authority will need to win a vote not just of the banking union members, but also of the non banking union members before it can place new requirements on the banks of the 27 member states including Britain.
This system only works if there are other countries remaining out of the banking union. So far the Czech Republic and Sweden have said they will be outside for the time being. Bulgaria, not a Euro member, has volunteered to join the banking system. Denmark, the only country with the UK to enjoy a legal opt out of the Euro, has not decided yet about the banking union. As eight of the ten countries outside the banking union are meant to be preparing to join the Euro, and as most of them want to join it, we cannot rely on this group remaining outside the banking union. Nor should we assume that their interests will usually align with the UK and the City of London, rather than with the other banking union members of the EU. Whilst the double lock is a neat idea and offers some reassurance, I doubt it will work well from the UK’s point of view. It is not nearly as effective as a UK veto.
There is a fundamental flaw in the thinking about all this.The City can be damaged or changed by the large amounts of EU law and regulation that already apply to it, and by the future decisions of the European Banking Authority and the equivalent bodies involved with insurance and financial services. The Coalition government inherited a position where most financial regulation comes from Brussels already, and has gone along with further Directives which confirm that progress. They have gone along with it because the UK government and Bank of England have wanted more regulation themselves, so it has not seemed to matter much to them if it mainly comes from the EU. They also thought they had little option, as so much of it now is enacted by qualified majority vote.
There is a fundamental weakness in this approach. Some of the current regulation is probably damaging, and unlikely to prevent some of the absues it is ostensibly designed to stop. When government wakes up to this, there is a world of differnece between changing UK based laws and rules, where Parliament can do it relatively easily, and changing EU laws and rules. This may prove just about impossible, given the large number of governments, the European Parliament and the Commission involved in the task. The UK needs a new relationship with the EU, which will include having much more power and sway over our own businesses.
So far the climate of antagonism to banking and finance, the rash of new laws, the higher taxes and the demands for much larger amounts of cash and capital have led to a sharp decline in City employment. It has led to a big fall in tax receipts from highly paid people, and to various activities moving to new locations where the tax and regulatory system is more benign. The EU is often hostile towards what it calls “Anglo Saxon capitalism” and is busy inventing new laws to control what they see as the excesses of the banking and financial sectors. The EU authorities are also keen to transfer business from London to the Euro zone, though their policies are better at transferring it out of the EU altogether. The UK is currenly having to fight a court case to try to preserve its legal right in the EU to carry out various transactions in Euros!
The government was right to stay out of banking union, and right to seek some protection for the UK. The truth remains that thanks to past Treaties and decisions one of the UK’s great commercial success stories, the City of London, is vulnerable to hostile legislation from the EU. The German motor industry is looked after by the EU. The City cannot expect the same treatment. It is one reason among many why the UK needs a new relationship with the EU that leaves us free to trade with them but not governed by them.