Why I'm voting with Tory MPs for a cut in the EU budget

To be pro-European is not to endorse each and every proposal of the Brussels apparat.

There are rare moments in the Commons when principle and politics come together. One of these will happen tomorrow evening (Wednesday) when eurosceptic Conservative MPs join with Labour in voting in favour of a real-terms cut in the EU budget. An alliance, at first sight against nature, is taking shape between pro-EU Labour MPs and anti-EU Conservative ones. Tory MP Douglas Carswell, who says that Britain’s membership of the EU is like "being shackled to a corpse", will vote in the same lobby as me, a passionate, unashamed believer that European integration has been good for my country.

The first task of any parliament, anywhere in the world, is to vote money. To vote against a budget proposed by a Conservative government is not as unpatriotic action by Labour, anymore than George Osborne was inspired by anti-British beliefs when he savaged Gordon Brown’s budgets.

All Labour MPs will do on Wednesday is fall in behind Labour MEPs, who also voted against the seven-year EU budget last week in the European Parliament. The reason is simple. The budget or or Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) as it is known in eurospeak is a product of the poorest, most unimaginative EU governance seen since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. It is a budget which continues in the more-of-the-same tramlines that have led Europe, under the controlling conservative majority in the Commission and Parliament, incarnated by the two centre-right politicians, José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, to its present stagnant state. There is nothing in the MFF for growth, for jobs, for the green economy or any measures to restore the confidence of European citizens that the EU is a project which has social justice and a reduction of greed and growing inequalities at its heart.

It is the re-entry of politics into the European debate that is long overdue. To be pro-European is not to endorse each and every proposal of the Brussels apparat. Some months ago, I coined the term "Brexit" – to describe the growing British politics of pushing open the exit door to the EU. Endorsing a bad Brussels budget will accelerate Brexit, as a governing party that is divided against itself between soft and hard Eurosceptics will not long stand.

There are two kinds of political discussion on the EU. The first is whether we should be in the EU at all. The second is what kind of EU we want. It is unclear how many Tories now think, like Ukip, that Britain would be better off out. Against such Brexitites are those, mainly Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, who want the UK to stay in and be a player in seeking a better, more focused Europe.

Continuing the same old budget spend on protectionist agro-industry subsidies will suit the big landowners like the Queen and the Cooperative Movement, which are the principal beneficiaries of the Common Agricultural Policy in Britain. Subsidising EU cows when millions of human are out of work makes no sense. In the 1990s, income in south Yorkshire had fallen so low that the region, where I am an MP, became eligible for EU help and £700m arrived from EU taxpayers to help.

As prime minister, Margaret Thatcher increased the UK contribution to the-then European Community budget from £654m in 1984 to £2.4bn in 1990, thus providing Jacques Delors with the money to shape the single market. We should be spending more in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, so that those nations can grow and keep more of their citizens working at home, rather than being economic migrants elsewhere in Europe.

But the MFF does none of these things. Conservative MPs who want out of Europe will vote against the MFF on Wednesday. Labour MPs who want to stay in a Europe which changes its priorities will do likewise. Meanwhile, David Cameron and William Hague, who have spent the last fifteen years telling voters Europe was a bad thing, are now approaching a moment of truth. Are they for Brexit or are they for Europe, but a Europe that rejects austerity and social dumping,  increases common rules on justice, and speaks with one voice globally? So far, the government has tried to be half-in, but not fully supportive of the EU. Time is running out. The vote on Wednesday will lift still further the curtain on the biggest choice facing Britain in generations.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (L) and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder