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.