Conservatives battling straw men over Brussels
It’s a familiar game in the European Union. When faced with a fait accompli that you know will go down badly in your country or with your troops, what Governments do is claim that something even worse is being proposed, demand that it should be abandoned, and then return in triumph claiming that you have done a great deal to achieve what was actually going to happen anyway. The Prime Minister’s attempt to do that over the European Commission budget is unravelling faster than usual, but it’s the usual trick (and isn’t unique to the current administration). And David Cameron’s desperate chicanery is obscuring the real scandal – which is the European Commission’s staggering hypocrisy in proposing a modest budget increase for itself is the same one demanding that every other Government in the EU should wield the axe on services for working and middle class people.
First the agony of David Cameron. All British PMs go through this. Having vanquished their domestic foes at an election, often after slaying a few dragons in their own party too to stamp their authority on it, new Prime Ministers often play humble in public but have convinced themselves that they are omnipotent. Then they arrive in Brussels for a Council of Europe summit and discover that, actually, no one else round the table has to bow or scrape, or even take much notice of them. UK Prime Ministers are more powerful than most at EU summits, but they always have to swallow something they don’t like in their first year. No wonder that even europhile PMs rapidly migrate towards scepticism.
This week, David Cameron has pledged to oppose a 5.9% increase in the European Commission budget which has already been rejected by Finance Ministers and was certain to be rejected by the Council. He has therefore secured a 2.9% increase instead (well, that’s now the most likely outcome – just as it always was! – although none of this is set out in the Council communication) He has claimed that the European Parliament ignored Conservative protests about the budget (although his Conservative MEPs didn’t suggest anyamendments to cut the budget) and that Labour MEPs supported the 5.9% proposal when they actually voted against and proposed cuts, for example in agricultural subsidies – terminological inexactitudes exposed by EPLP Leader Glenis Willmott.
Reaction from the Conservative Eurosceptic wing suggests he hasn’t convinced them either. They would prefer at least an EU budget freeze, if not the same sort of cuts the coalition have announced for the UK. And that would at least be consistent with what the European Commission has said about its Member States’ budgets, where it has advocated exactly the sort of austerity that it has rejected for itself. It is indeed an outrage that the Commission is calling for cuts everywhere but at home, and they should at least blush furiously about the attack they have supported on working and middle class people in the name of economic necessity – a necessity that can apparently become merely an option when it’s their own budget! (For the avoidance of doubt, the TUC does not think cuts to the EU budget are any more necessary than cuts to the UK’s.)