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