Open Europe Blog

Over on the Telegraph blog, we argue:

Labour has joined the battle over the EU’s next long-term budget. The budget, to run between 2014 and 2020, will be discussed at an EU summit on 22 and 23 November. David Cameron wants a “real terms freeze” (based on the cash that was paid out from the 2011 EU budget), Labour says he should go for a “real terms cut”, though it is not clear how that is defined. A motion will be debated on Wednesday in Parliament calling for a cut in the EU budget. It’s not binding, but if Labour MPs side with Tory backbenchers it could be embarrassing for the Government. The discussion is generally confused. 

Cameron is running short of allies in Europe for his real terms freeze – the Swedes and the Dutch are still with him. Cameron looks unlikely to back down, however, and it may come to him vetoing it. So what happens if Cameron vetoes the EU budget? The spin from some is that the talks move to QMV, and Cameron is toast anyway.

It’s a bit more complicated than this, however. If there’s no agreement by the end of 2013, there are two, broad possible outcomes:

Carry over the current EU budget:  If EU leaders fail to reach a deal before the end of next year, the 2013 budget structure is carried over, adjusted to inflation (the standard GDP deflator of 2pc). How the cash is allocated is decided by Qualified Majority Vote (QMV) rather than unanimity, circumventing the UK’s veto.

The point is that the UK uses 2011 payments as its baseline figure and this is likely to be considerably lower than the budget allocations or the overall ceiling for subsequent years. The combination of QMV and switching baseline scenario could therefore substantially increase the size of the EU budget, compared to both Cameron’s proposal and the various compromise deals floating around.

Tear up the budget completely and create a new proposal: The European Parliament could go rogue, tearing up the so-called “inter-institutional agreement” between itself and EU ministers, meaning that each year the Commission has to table a completely new proposal for the annual budgets although without any spending ceilings. These, also, will be subject to QMV.

So is Cameron’s veto pointless? Not at all. For a range of reasons, many EU countries would will desperately want to avoid this minefield:

  • Under a “no deal” scenario, EU leaders will need to decide some 55 separate EU spending areas, through individual QMV decisions, all subject to a cobweb of disagreements. This would be hugely time-consuming.
  • The powerful block of new member states would lose out massively from the previous year’s deal being carried over, since under the new budget period they are expected to receive proportionately more money. They will badly want a new deal.
  • In addition, the UK isn’t the only country with a “rebate”. But unlike the UK’s rebate, all other budget corrections – including the Swedish and Dutch rebate on the UK’s rebate (yes, there’s such a thing) – will expire in 2013, while the UK rebate remains constant (courtesy of Margaret Thatcher). Many net contributors are therefore keen on a new deal.
  • For its part, it would take a lot of nerve for the European Parliament – which is already struggling with democratic legitimacy – to tear up the inter-institutional agreement altogether (I dare them).

There’s another twist involving the UK’s rebate which may not make an ad hoc deal appear that bad for the UK either. Even under  Cameron’s “freeze”, the UK’s net contribution could go up by between €1bn (2.2pc) and €2.4bn (5.4pc) over seven years, as more cash would go to new member states not covered by the UK rebate. Under a “no deal” this effect may be mitigated to a significant extent, meaning the UK’s net contribution wouldn’t be greatly affected (for the detail, see here).

Cameron could have done some other things – including repatriating structural funds for richer member states – but at least he’s trying to achieve some change and do the right thing.  Ultimately, this episode shows just how politically and economically unsustainable the EU budget is. It needs to be one of the first items up for re-negotiation as the UK seeks new EU membership terms.

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