Opinion: We’re too quiet on EU reform. But it’s not #nickcleggsfault

I spent months canvassing for the Euro-elections last time around. No voter said they wanted more EU spending. Only one voter (step forward, Welwyn Garden City) told me that we would get his vote in the Euro elections because his normal party was too anti-European. So Stephen Tall is right to suggest a doorstep test on EU finance. And no one can be very surprised that the House of Commons voted in favour of a cut.

But Nick Clegg was surely right yesterday morning to point out that a real-terms cut is undeliverable. The negotiations on the next MFF (seven year framework budget) have been going on for years already. The UK has not been seeking a real terms cut – and which negotiation handbook suggests you should switch to a tougher target at the eleventh hour? So yesterday Labour were simply opportunist.

Their new allies among Cameron’s ungovernable backbenchers seem more interested in grandstanding (or perhaps undermining the Prime Minister’s authority) than achieving real change. (It is sometimes hard to decide whether Tory rebels are most worried about being in government collectively or not being in ministerial office individually).

Throughout the negotiations to date, the UK has acted in concert with a broad coalition of Member States interested in containing the Budget. It has been a pretty mainstream group too: France, Germany, the Netherlands; Denmark, Sweden, Finland all form part of it. The most insidious Euro-myth is the one that says only the UK is concerned about the EU budget.

Working with other Member States works. In negotiations of this kind, a Member State which signals an unwillingness to form part of a majority (or a blocking minority) risks being ignored. That is why gestures are a waste of time.

How the budget is spent is at least as important is its size. Liberal Democrats would do well to listen to politicians from other parts of the EU. People like Swedish Minister for Europe (and liberal) Birgitta Ohlsson who has argued that the cuts proposed by the Cyprus Presidency are not just too small, but affect the wrong things. She suggests that it makes no sense to cut Research funding to keep the CAP at current levels.

#nickcleggsfault?

I’m broadly happy with Stephen’s conclusions.  But I don’t think this is a case for reviving #nickcleggsfault hashtag. When Clegg was an MEP he wrote pamphlets on reforming EU spending. Which of our MEPs have made a move in this direction since he left?

Yesterday morning Clegg was clear enough on reforming spending. It isn’t his fault that no Liberal Democrat MEP took up Clegg’s reforming role when he left for Westminster. But in the next Parliament someone will have to.

The other day we saw a passionate denunciation of UKIP’s expenses from Chris Davies. I enjoyed it greatly. But once in a while I’d like to see the same passion from one of our MEPs in the case of reform.

* Peter Welch was a Euro candidate in the East of England in 2009 and is a candidate for selection to stand again there in 2014. Peter stood in Southend West in the last General Election.

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6 Comments

  • I do believe that few people understand that the EU budget is overwhelmingly nothing to do with spending on the Commission and associate institutions.

    How many understand the extent to which the Common Agricultural Policy has been reformed? How many understand that the largest part is spent on investment in industry and infrastructure?

    A ‘doorstep test’ would only tell us how little people understand and how the incessant Europhobia and Euroscepticism from the media and politicians has become the standard default position.

    At the present time there are strong arguments for increasing the budget in investment, but this is lost to most in the UK.

    Last night on the Politics Show, Michael Portillo gave the opinion that hostility to Europe is such that anything to do with the EU will be unpopular and that as a result, whatever appears in manifestos, there will never be an EU referendum as a rejection is a foregone conclusion. I found this all greatly depressing and unfortunately the consequences were not examined in the programme. If he is right, it would suggest that UKIP will become an increasingly bigger party and that the relationship of the UK with the EU will become increasingly dysfunctional.

    Unfortunately the blanket of hostility to Europe and the EU stifles any positive discussion of the future of the EU. Yes MEPs have a responsibility to be active on EU affairs and do their best to be heard. Are you so sure they are not active but simply fail to be heard? How many, before Nick Clegg came back into Westminster, were aware of his reform proposals?

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t listen to Nick’s statement but read and heard some of the reports.

    We are getting our messaging all wrong on Europe, I’m afraid.

  • Haven’t we all missed the point here. We’re treating the EU as if it were an organisation that we can have a sensible debate about, come up with reform ideas and then implement them.

    In reality it is largely unreformable, held hostage by a constellation of national interests that explicitly prevent progress on everything from Strasbourg to fishing rights. What is more, the potential downside in terms of loss of sovereignty is seen as growing daily.

    Add in the effects of the Eurozone crisis on the UK economy and making a positive case for the EU is an extremely tough ask.

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