The debate on the EU budget for the next few years (snappily known as the Multi-Annual Financial Framework) is pretty toxic in the UK, with the Coalition’s proposal that the budget be frozen undercut by a successful Tory backbench rebellion calling for cuts that secured Labour support. Prime Minister David Cameron heads over to Brussels for the next stage in the long running budget saga this Thursday/Friday.
There’s a general sense that the EU wastes money, and that – in times of austerity around Europe – the EU budget should be cut like any other state spending. Unions have been wary of making this argument, partly because it sits uneasily with our arguments against austerity generally and also because those wanting a cut or a freeze in the EU budget have played to Europhobic sentiments generally.
But almost all the heat generated is about the overall size of the budget (the debate seems to be over €30bn spread over 27 countries – a miniscule proportion of overall public expenditure) - not the far more important issue of what it is spent on. And the only realistic options on the table seem to be cutting back on important spending or increasing the overall EU budget. Spending less, but better, is not going to happen, at least in the short term.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has argued for an increase in the EU budget, in concert with the civil society-spanning ‘Spring Alliance’ of green, social and development groups. And they make a compelling case, which is, essentially, that the cuts being proposed to the budget would stop the EU doing things which are desperately needed, while leaving less essential or even wasteful budget lines untouched because they have powerful friends.
The argument contained in their 23 January letter to EU heads of state, Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy, is that there is much more that the EU needs to do. On climate, which the Spring Alliance believes should account for a fifth of the overall budget; on action to tackle social exclusion, industrial policy and training; and on tackling poverty in the global south.
But more importantly, the Spring Alliance is calling for the Commission’s budget to be redirected towards growth and jobs, and a smaller Commission budget isn’t going to achieve that. So, what should those who support more state spending to counter austerity and recessionary threats do?
Demanding cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy and an end to a second (Strasbourg) seat for the European Parliament will require a painstaking process of building alliances, which is less likely to result from Eurosceptic-sounding threats over the overall budget level. We know, for instance, that although the British government wants to see a higher proportion of the EU budget spent on overseas aid, UK officials are not helping the government’s case by arguing for overall cuts while sitting on their hands when it comes to securing alliances on the share going to aid (the TUC joined development NGOs last week in urging the PM to use the European Council meeting at the end of the week to press the case.)
So the UK government’s hostile approach to Europe is not only bad for Britain’s long term interests (because it increases the chances of Brexit) but to short-term objectives like reforming the EU budget so that it does more good, regardless of its overall size.