Last week, David Cameron went to Brussels to negotiate the EU Budget. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to consider how he got on.
Before he went, he was very clear. The EU budget should be cut, just as national budgets were being cut, or at least frozen. Many of us were rather surprised, therefore, when he came back to announce a great British success: the budget was to be raised by “only” 2.9%. But this was exactly the position previously agreed by the Council in August, so on the face of it, it was no success at all — merely the Council’s status quo. Cameron was forced to argue that the Council had at least firmed up its negotiating position.
His announcement had echoes of John Major’s notorious “Game, Set & Match” sound-bite after Maastricht, or even Chamberlain’s infamous “Peace in our time” claim after Munich in 1938.
We need to understand that even now, the Council’s position is only an opening negotiating stance. There will now be horse-trading between the Council, the parliament and the Commission, and seasoned Brussels-watchers will be surprised if the outcome is not somewhere north of 2.9%.
Even at 2.9%, we will be giving nearly an extra half billion pounds a year to Brussels. And that’s on top of the extra two or three billion we are handing over as a result of Tony Blair’s hopelessly inept negotiations several years ago, when he gave away a large part of Maggie Thatcher’s Fontainebleau rebate, in exchange for nebulous promises about CAP reform.
Now, however, we have a new element in the mix. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wants a tougher sanctions régime for eurozone states that run up excessive deficits, as Greece has done. This will require a change in the Treaties, although it is not totally clear at this stage whether it actually needs an entirely new Treaty (the EU is desperate to avoid any further referenda, which it would expect to lose), or whether they can make use of the Lisbon Treaty’s “passerelle clauses” to alter the existing Treaty.
But either way (I understand), the UK will have a veto, and if it’s a new Treaty, a pretext for a referendum. Just now, eurosceptic Tories (the overwhelming majority of the Party’s members and activists) are increasingly disillusioned with the new Conservative-led government’s approach to Brussels. We have rolled over on the EU diplomatic service, on EU financial regulation, on the European Investigation Order — and even on “Votes for Convicts”. Our government has shown a spectacular lack of backbone.
But now we face a litmus test. Does Cameron have a shopping list? Will he use his potential veto to make serious demands of Brussels, and to start repatriating powers (he could start with the Working Time Directive, and employment law generally)? Or will he let another opportunity slip by? Unless he makes a stand, more and more Party members will start to wonder why they work their socks off for a Party that so spectacularly fails to deliver on this touchstone issue.