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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.