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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.