Ben Chu: If we want to get tough on banks, Europe should set a better example


When it comes to bankers, the Europeans are hard and the British are soft. That, at least, has been one of the assumptions of recent years. The Europeans are commonly thought to be robust on the financial services because they want to impose a "Robin Hood" transactions tax on speculative activities. Our own Government, like the Sheriff of Nottingham, thinks Robin Hood ought to be executed. And David Cameron's wielding of the UK's veto in Brussels, in a futile attempt to secure special protection for the City from new European regulation, has cemented the perception that the British government is basically a mouthpiece for the banking lobby.

But this stereotype of Britain soft/Europe hard is grossly misleading. In fact, the opposite is arguably true. Consider the evidence. Britain is reforming its domestic banks. The Coalition is forcing large financial institutions to throw a ring fence around their high-street banking arms to prevent speculators from using the funds of ordinary savers as gambling chips. Of course, the British reform is far from perfect. The banks will probably find ways around the fence and they are pushing for the reforms to be watered down. It would have been far better if the Government had simply split the banks up. But it remains that George Osborne looks like a firebrand compared with European politicians.

Britain also wants to force domestic banks to hold larger capital buffers to minimise the risk that taxpayers will have to stump up billions of pounds to rescue the sector again. European leaders have little interest in this agenda of forcing greater prudence. Few noticed that one of Mr Cameron's demands at the Brussels summit was for Britain to be exempt from potentially lax European capital harmonisation rules. The Prime Minister was fighting for the right to be stricter with British banks than Europe might allow.

European banks are thinly capitalised financial supermarkets, with fingers in every pie from high-street banking, to insurance, to currency speculation. And just like British banks, they are far too big to be allowed to fail, which makes them highly dangerous to taxpayers' interests. Yet European politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, who never miss an opportunity to denounce the evils of Anglo-Saxon finance, have nothing to say about the recklessness and fragility of their own banking sectors.

European politicians used to claim that their bankers were inherently more sensible than British or US lenders and so needed less regulation. The eurozone debt crisis and the huge amounts of dodgy European sovereign bonds that have ended up on the balance sheets of Continental banks utterly destroyed that argument.

It is not just European politicians who the bankers can rely on. The European Central Bank, the keystone of the eurozone, is another reliable friend. The ECB presents itself as an incorruptible guardian of the single currency. It has furiously rejected suggestions that it should buy up the debt of distressed European governments to stabilise panicking bond markets. Yet the ECB is prepared to lend apparently without limit to European banks. Last month the ECB's new president, Mario Draghi, pumped in almost half a trillion euros of cheap funding into the Continental banking system to keep lenders afloat, despite signs that many of these institutions are effectively insolvent.

The European Union was once seen as a friend of capital, rather than labour. That is why Labour in the 1970s used to be so wary of Europe, and the Conservatives much more enthusiastic. The socialist rhetoric of the Jacques Delors era at the European Commission fundamentally shifted perceptions. But the cosiness of European politicians and officials with their banking elite demonstrates that some things never really change.

This is where rail passengers' ire needs to be directed

Who should pay for the running of the railways? Taxpayers or passengers? The Government says the burden should fall on passengers, hence the higher fares introduced this week.

On the surface, this seems reasonable. Rail users are the main beneficiaries of rail services, so rail users should pay for them. Yet a report for the Department for Transport by Sir Roy McNulty last year revealed colossal inefficiencies among UK rail companies.

The public subsidy for the railways is around five times larger today in real terms than it was in the days of British Rail. UK rail fares are much higher than they are in Europe, and standards are generally lower.

The post-privatisation structure of the railways is an expensive mess. Ever more money is being sucked in but the quality of the output is often poor. And the chief executives of the rail franchises reward themselves lavishly.

The public should not allow train companies and ministers to frame this as a battle between passengers and taxpayers. This should be a struggle between the entire country and the useless rail operators.

Hamish McRae is away

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