EU success for Cameron? Get real

The Conservative leader is caught between a rock and a hard place over Europe.

As is customary at summits of the European Union, all leaders come away claiming victory. David Cameron is no different. Despite pledging several weeks ago that the EU budget would be frozen, he is now claiming victory for having limited the increase to 2.9 per cent. His spin machine is whirring into action.

But the truth is that the EU budget row has shown that it's only taken five months for the first significant Tory party split over the EU. David Cameron may be a pragmatic and skilled negotiator, but most of his MPs are not, especially when the EU rears its head.

The likes of Douglas Carswell and the veteran Thatcherite Eurosceptic Norman Tebbit have been on the rhetorical warpath, Tebbit going as far as to compare Cameron's acceptance of the EU budget with the Vichy puppet government's alliance with Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

Such language is deeply offensive and arrant rubbish. It is another reminder that Lord Tebbit should spend more time at the golf club and less time spouting his ill-informed poison.

The Tories have spent much of the past few weeks trying to blame Labour, falsely accusing Labour MEPs of voting in favour of the European Parliament's proposal to increase the EU budget by 6 per cent. This is simply not true – they voted to oppose the parliament's proposal.

The truth is that the Tory leadership, in their anxiety not to talk about the EU, did nothing to build alliances with other countries to block a budget increase. That they now have to accept a 2.9 per cent increase is their fault, not Labour's. This should be a wake-up call to the Tories to get real about the EU budget.

A bit of a reality check is also in order over the size of the budget. It is strictly capped, so that it can be only fractionally over 1 per cent of EU GDP, so let's not delude ourselves that we are talking about a huge increase. Most of the increase will pay for the new European External Action Service, beefing up foreign policy co-ordination between member states.

We should also scotch the myth that Britain subsidises the rest of Europe. In fact, while Britain is one of about ten countries who are net contributors to the EU budget, there are other countries with much more reason to complain about it. Germany's contribution is double that of Britain's, while the Netherlands contributes only slightly less, despite having a population that is a quarter the size of ours.

The Scandinavian nations and France are also among those countries which, in per person terms, make contributions similar to Britain's. This arrangement is sensible. It is right that Europe's wealthiest nations should put in a bit more than the poorest. Given that most of our exports go to other EU countries, it makes economic sense if as many countries as possible have the means to buy our goods and services.

Moreover, if the Tories think that, in the future, they can expect other countries to agree to a reduction in Britain's contribution, then they need to swallow a dose of reality. The truth is that most European countries actually resent that Britain already gets a £3bn-£4bn rebate each year, just as most Brits resent the costs of the Common Agricultural Policy.

While the CAP remains, so will the British rebate, and vice versa. It may be unwelcome to hear this, but that's the way it is.

So Cameron has learned that, when it comes to EU summits, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has saved a little face by leading the negotiations for a 2.9 per cent increase and talking tough for the Eurosceptic press, but the truth is that his position is akin to a poker player armed with a poor hand and little scope to bluff.

And his backbenchers know it. Thirty-seven Tory MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against a motion on the EU budget a fortnight ago. We can assume a similar-sized rebellion when the agreed budget comes before the Commons. Never mind. Watching the Tories rip themselves apart over the EU is always amusing bloodsport.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.