BBC Daily Politics

Labour Party

Last Friday I was invited on to the BBC Daily Politics show. As always it was great to debate news of the day with host Andrew Neil and guests.

I discussed  the EU budget, emissions trading, EU concern following the Edward Snowden story among other items.

I’ve uploaded some clips from Friday’s show here for you to watch.

Britain’s EU bill explained without the anti-European hype

Labour Party

Mark Reckless, Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell and the other feral Tory Eurosceptics are quite simply wrong on the EU budget. At best they have either not bothered to do their homework or quite simply and naively believe the plethora of misinformation that surrounds us in Britain. At worst they are so utterly opposed to the European Union that they will always twist the truth to suit their own purposes.

I was particularly disappointed by an article in the Sunday Times full of prejudice taking little account of the facts. Britain actually received a £5 billion rebate back from the EU last year and will continue to get this sum adjusted for inflation for every subsequent year. The reason the UK is one of the highest contributors to the EU is that we are one of the largest member states.

What is more, the EU budget is nothing like as huge as current folk lore would have us believe. In 2011 it was € 140 billion. The average EU citizen pays only about 50p on average per day to finance the annual budget which represents only around 1% of EU-27 Gross Domestic Product

The budget is, in addition, always balanced, meaning nothing is spent on debt. Moreover 94% of what is paid into the EU budget is spent in Member States on EU funded programmes, many of which are about economic development creating jobs and generating wealth. Those who complain about EU payments to Kosovo being lost to corruption as outlined in the Sunday Times would do well to understand that this is proportionately a very small sum of money. Of course, corruption is always wrong, but the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decision to support Kosovo was made in good faith with the aim of rebuilding the war torn country.

I get very annoyed when we are told that the EU budget and almost everything else is imposed by Brussels. The budget and, indeed all European legislation, is decided by elected politicians, in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers comprising member states’ elected governments. The EU never “imposes” anything on member states; it is all agreed by elected governments and elected MEPs.

The Sunday Times article sadly relied on briefing from the Open Europe think tank. They are by their own admission anti-EU as this quote from their website demonstrates: “While we [Open Europe] are committed to European co-operation, we believe that the EU has reached a critical moment in its development. Globalisation, enlargement, successive No votes in EU referenda and the Eurozone crisis have discredited the notion of ‘ever closer union’ espoused by successive generations of political and bureaucratic elites.”

While this is an opinion, it is not the only one and the Sunday Times would have done well to take on board other arguments. They tell us that 53% of those in David Cameron’s Witney constituency favour withdrawal from the EU. That means that 47% do not, enough I would have thought for their views to be taken on board.

Congratulations to Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski

Labour Party

You may have seen this article in yesterday’s times by Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.

A veteran of the Solidarity generation, Mr Sikorski ticks, in his own words, “every box required to be a lifelong member of the Eurosceptic club”. He is even acknowledged by his heroine Margaret Thatcher in her book “Statecraft”.

Yet he believes in the modern European project and emphasises that Poland will do its utmost to make it succeed.

Mr Sikorski is, of course, in the European mainstream. This is yet another example of just how isolated the British Conservatives find themselves.

Mr Sikorski goes much further in his article, busting seven myths about the EU regularly peddled in Britain.

Myth 1 – Britain’s trade with the EU is less important than its trade with the rest of the world.

In fact half of UK exports go to the EU. Until recently Britain traded more with Ireland than Brazil, India and China put together. In 2011 the UK trade deficit with China was £19.7 billion. Between 2003 and 2011 Britain’s exports to Poland increased threefold.

Myth 2 – The EU forces Britain to adopt laws on human rights that are contrary to the British tradition

In fact these rulings come from the European Court of Human Rights, which is not part of the EU but part of the Council of Europe, originally set up by the UK and pre-dates the EU.

Myth 3 – The UK is bankrupting itself by funding Europe

In fact, the EU budget is a mere one per cent of the GDP of all EU member states. The UK’s annual net contribution to the EU is £8 – 9 billion a year, similar to that of France and less than Germany. It equates to just £150 a year for each person in Britain. Moreover, UK companies have benefitted enormously from EU cohesion fund investments in Central and Eastern Europe. These are new markets for this country. The British Government estimates that every household “earns” between £1,500 and £3,500 from the single market – between five to fifteen times the UK’s budget contribution.

Myth 4 – The UK is drowning in EU bureaucracy

In fact there are 33,000 people working for the European Commission compared with 82,000 at HM Revenue and Customs. Spain has nearly three million bureaucrats.

Myth 5 – Britain is being taken over by EU legislation

In fact EU Directives are not imposed on high from Brussels. British elected representatives and officials in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers approve and sign off EU legislation.

Myth 6 – The European Commission is a hotbed of socialism

In fact there are many examples of the EU helping to dismantle monopolies and maintaining competition regulations, for example the Open Sky and the subsidies to business.

Myth 7 – The EU stops hardworking Britons working longer hours than feckless continentals

In fact the average Pole works 40.5 hours a week, the average Spaniard 38.1 and the average across the EU is 37.2. In the UK we are slightly under the EU average at 36.2 hours a week.

Mr Sikorski has given us valuable information on the reality rather of the EU rather than the fantasies we hear all the time. Maybe we are also seeing the beginning of a more mature and sensible attitude to the European Union by some of those sections of the British media who have in the past been somewhat economical with the truth about our membership.

David Cameron is seeking to appease Tory Eurosceptics rather than doing the Right Thing in Europe

Labour Party

Already threatened with splits at home, the coalition government has now turned its attention to the European Union.

So what, you may think. Isn’t it always the case that the British make waves, not really signing up to the European programme and always demanding red lines?

While this has often been true, there is a qualitative difference the coalition’s utterly intransigent behaviour on the EU budget and previous demands for exemptions by the last Labour government. While Labour ministers did demand opt outs, they more often than not related to security and anti terrorism matters.

This time the Tories, and its appears to be the Tories rather than their Lib Dem allies, are playing a ruthless hand, indulging at best in brinkmanship and at worse in a damaging line of attack which could seriously damage UK:EU relations well into the future. I doubt if I’m the only one who wonders where the supposedly pro EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners are in the EU budget wrangling.

Martin Schulz, European Parliament Socialist and Democrat Group Leader is absolutely convinced Cameron, i.e. the United Kingdom, is set on wrecking the 2011 budget. The reason is simple; Mr Cameron wants to regain credibility and support from his party, a party which moved to the right and became noticeably more Eurosceptic after the 2010 general election.

Mr Cameron is selling the UK down the river for very little. He has already gone much further than Labour MEPs were prepared to go in that he agreed to the 2.9 percent increase the European Council wanted. Labour MEPs have already agreed there should be no increase in the EU and have stated this very publicly.

However, before the budget is agreed, the European Parliament is making three other demands, demands contained in the Lisbon Treaty:

  • the EU has the power to raise its own resources via VAT, levies on the common agricultural policy and a raft of other possibilities
  • the European Parliament has the same status as the Council of Ministers in determining medium term financial planning , the financial perspectives, as the Council of Ministers
  • there should be additional flexibility in the EU budget. The European Parliament is asking for an additional flexibility of 0.03 of the budget to meet contingencies.

It is, in fact, the last of these, the extra flexibility, that Cameron is holding out on with help from the Netherlands, and Sweden and Denmark to some extent.

However, it is Cameron who is the prime mover and the one who is doing all he can to prevent agreement on the EU budget,

Since the three weeks negotiating time between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the conciliation process, ended last night, the way forward is less than clear. The European Commission will, we understand, come up with a new budget. In the meantime, a twelfth of the 2010 budget will brought forward each month until a new budget is agreed,

This could have severe consequences on a number of EU programmes such as the funding for the Galileo satellite and possibly the External Action Service.

The problem is that whatever cuts may have to be made because the European Parliament and the European Council have refused to make a budget, they are random and completely unplanned.

Labour MEPs, on the other hand, recognise that since EU member states are making heavy cuts, the EU itself should do the same things. The difference is we believe the reductions in the EU budget should be thought through and implemented with as little harm as possible, unlike David Cameron whose only agenda seems to be placating the Eurosceptics in his own party.

David Cameron “not honest” about EU Budget

Labour Party

David Cameron could maybe win a pyrrhic victory on the EU budget, a “victory” which the MEP handling the negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the centre-right Sidonia Jedrzejewska, has labelled “not honest”.

Speaking about the letter signed by 12 EU leaders last week to limit the budget rise to 2.9%., Mme Jedrzejewska told the Times, “It is not an honest proposal. People who wrote the letter know it will be more in the end. They are just postponing payments.”

This is strong stuff, even more so as it comes from an MEP whose political philosophy is relatively close to that of Mr Cameron.

As the European Parliament expert on the EU budget, Mme Jedrzejewska is very clear that were the Cameron proposal to go through, there would have to be “amended budgets” to pay for existing commitments. “The member states have to understand that if you want to put a stop to the EU budget, then you have to put a stop to your ambitions too. You can’t have more for less,” she told the Times.

And this really is the heart of the matter. David Cameron and George Osborne are reducing the UK national budget by slashing public spending with huge consequences for the vulnerable and needy. Cuts in housing benefit will drive people out of central London, the unemployed are being forced to do unpaid labour and child benefit is being taken away from women who chose to be full time mothers.

The national budget can be brought down because expenditure is reduced.  I think it’s totally appalling and it’s not what Labour would have done. It is, however, feasible.

This is not the case with the EU budget.  Cameron and the other countries that sent the letter, which was a Cameron initiative instigated by David Cameron himself, have not put forward any plans to cut EU spending. Cameron, along with the other 11 which include Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Austria, is therefore at the very least culpable of not being honest.

The deadline for agreeing the European Union budget is Monday. The negotiating  protocol between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (the co-decision process) allows six weeks to reach agreement otherwise the whole budget will fall. If the new budget is not agreed, this year’s budget will continue to apply.

I wonder if David Cameron is trying to placate his Eurosceptic wing by bringing about an EU budget freeze by default, using EU procedures.  If this is the game plan, I think may well not succeed.  I wonder when push comes to shove how many of the 11 other signatories would be prepared to allow the EU budget to fall by the wayside. It is not, after all, either an efficient or dignified way of conducting business.

One final thought. If the EU were to revert to the current budget, one of the casualties could well be the EU External Action Service (EAAS). Given that in Baroness Catherine Ashton we have a Briton heading it up, and that the establishment of the EAAS marks a significant development supported by both the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats, I sincerely hope David Cameron would not be so pig-headed as to jeopardise its future.

Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron certainly is not!

Labour Party

Following much hot air from David Cameron he has revealed just what an empty vessel he really is.

Conceding defeat the prime minister told fellow European leaders ahead of today’s summit in Brussels that he accepts the £107bn EU budget will have to increase by a minimum of 2.9%, the figure already accepted by the European Council, reports the Guardian.

Cameron’s much vaunted telephone offensive which included Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European council about the budget obviously got nowhere.

David Cameron is revealing that he is no Margaret Thatcher and has failed to stand his ground.  The Iron Lady famously stood up to the EU and negotiated a rebate for Britain which has endured to this day. Cameron, on the other hand, has thrown in the towel with undue haste.   

It’s hardly surprising that the Tory Eurosceptics, who have been urging Cameron to fight for a freeze or a cut in the EU budget, are angry. They supported David Cameron because they thought he was one of them.  Yes, Cameron did make sure the Tories in the European Parliament left the centre right European People’s Party to join up with a group of right-wingers whom Nick Clegg famously called a “bunch of nutters”.

However, Cameron is not delivering for the Eurosceptics now and they are not holding back in putting forward their point of view. Bill Cash, Peter Lilley and a host of others were very much in evidence in the Commons Chamber yesterday.

All this goes to show that when a politician does something for short term gain, such as Cameron promising anti-EU measures to get himself elected as Tory Leader, this will come back to bite him very hard when the day of reckoning comes and he cannot deliver his promises. While Margaret Thatcher did deliver hers, David Cameron is proving unable to do so.

Perhaps David Cameron’s assertion that Labour MEPs voted for the 5.9% increase in the EU budget which came before the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week was part of his plan to assuage his Eurosceptic wing.  Who knows?

But what David Cameron said was incorrect. Labour MEPs voted against the final vote to adopt the EU budget. We were very sure that it was wrong at the present time to ask for such an increase in EU spending.

Fortunately Chris Leslie MP, one of Labour’s Treasury Spokespersons, was able to put this right in the Commons debate.

I wonder why Cameron got it so wrong. He does, after all, have an army of researchers at Number 10 and in Whitehall and the EU votes are published a few hours after the votes are taken. He also has several Conservative MEPs who would have known the score.

It could, perhaps be that he wished to discredit the Labour Party by putting out deliberate misinformation. If this is anywhere near the truth, Cameron and his Tory cohorts will brings politics further into disrepute and should be ashamed of themselves.

The European Parliament vote is important in the EU final decision making process on the budget.  As a result of various decisions over the past few years, both the European Parliament and the European Council (the EU member state governments) have equal weight in coming to an agreement on the budget. 

This means that although Cameron has accepted the 2.9% increase, this may not be the final outcome as negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council are currently underway to come to a compromise.

Despite all the brouhaha, the EU budget is not on the formal agenda of today’s European summit but will only be discussed in the margins. If the 2.9% increase is agreed, Britain will contribute an extra £435.2m. If a higher percentage is negotiated, Cameron’s coalition government may get even more than they were bargaining for.