Cameron set to win a cut in the EU budget - but there's a catch

Even if European leaders agree to a €34.4bn cut in the EU budget, the UK will almost certainly pay more.

David Cameron went into the EU budget negotiations insisting on "at worst a freeze, at best a cut" (Labour and rebel Tories had demanded that he go further and insist on a cut) and after a long night of talks, it looks as if he's secured the "best". For the first time in its history, the EU is set to agree to a cut in its next seven-year budget. Earlier this morning, EU president Herman Van Rompuy tabled proposals that would see the union's spending limit for 2014-20 reduced from €942.8bn to €908.4bn - a  €34.4bn cut and a saving of £400m-a-year for British taxpayers. 

If approved - EU leaders have just taken a two-hour break from the onerous negotiations - a cut would be a triumph for Cameron. He will have defied those who claimed that his promise of an in/out referendum on Britain's EU membership would leave him unable to achieve a successful outcome.

The catch, however, is that regardless of whether the EU agrees to a real-terms cut in its budget, the UK's net contribution will almost certainly increase. This is largely due to a reduction in the British rebate agreed by Tony Blair in 2005 to meet the cost of EU enlargement (a cause the UK had championed) but a cut in the EU budget will look less impressive to voters if it turns out that we'll still be paying more. Tory MP Mark Pritchard, one of those supported a real-terms cut when the Commons voted last October, tweeted this morning: "It will be a historic, but 'bitter-sweet' outcome, if the PM negotiates a real terms cut in the EU budget but sees the UK contribution rise".

In addition, the overall budget will still need to be approved by the EU parliament and German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the president of the parliament, has been making sceptical noises this morning. He is threatening to veto the proposed deal on the grounds that it would create a structural deficit. "The [budget] in the form currently being proposed, however, would turn what is already a legally highly questionable trend into a structural deficit," he told EU leaders. 

Worst of all, while spending on the bloated Common Agricultural Policy (a slush fund for assorted land-owning dukes, earls and princes) will be €1bn higher than under the previous proposal, spending on transport, telecommunications and energy projects, all vital pro-growth areas, will be €11bn lower. 

Yet given how few expected him to be in a position to announce any kind of cut, Cameron will rightly feel that the summit has been a success for him. Having once refused to contemplate a reduction in spending, EU leaders now make Cameron-esque noises about the need for restraint at a time when EU member states are enduring austerity. The draft conclusion states: "As fiscal discipline is reinforced in Europe, it is essential that the future Multiannual Financial Framework [the seven-year budget] reflects the consolidation efforts being made by member states to bring deficit and debt onto a more sustainable path. The value of each euro spent must be carefully examined." Arch-eurosceptic Douglas Carswell has offered the PM "three hearty cheers" this morning and so will many others in his party. 

David Cameron arrives at the EU Headquarters on February 7, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.