EU budget: ‘Official communists’ welcome Miliband’s conversion to austerity
Europhobes of all political hues have tasted blood following the coalition governments defeat over the EU budget, writes Eddie Ford
The parliamentary defeat suffered by David Cameron over the European Union budget on October 31 provided us with another glimpse of the Tories’ internal contradictions. Fifty-three Conservative MPs joined forces with Labour to defeat the government by 307 votes to 294. The successful amendment demanded that the next EU budget, for 2014-20, which as currently proposed will exceed €1 trillion, should be “reduced in real terms”. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls imposed a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote with the Tory Eurosceptics led by Mark Reckless, many of whom are committed to total withdrawal from the EU.
In a hurried damage-limitation exercise, foreign secretary William Hague said the government would “take note” of the non-binding vote. Senior Tory MPs, who stopped short of joining the 53 Eurosceptics in the division lobbies, warned they too will rebel if spending is not frozen (cut in real terms) at the November 23 EU summit. But for the moment they are keeping their powder dry, given that that any eventual deal agreed by EU leaders would have to be approved by parliament.
Cameron’s bargaining position, insofar as you can call it that, is to insist on retaining the full annual UK rebate first negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, whilst threatening to veto any budget increase that exceeds inflation - as opposed to the 5% or more envisaged by some in the European Commission. Cameron, of course, argues that any freeze is effectively a reduction. His Tory and now Labour critics, however, say that this does not go far enough, as it would still cost British taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds in a time of domestic austerity. If we have to cut at home, then we should cut in Europe.
Reckless told MPs during the debate that Cameron’s plan would increase the UK’s net contribution to the EU from £9.2 billion last year to £13.6 billion in 2020 - “we simply cannot afford that,” he said. Mark Pritchard, another Tory rebel, portrayed himself as the noble defender of ordinary, cash-strapped, British families - “Are we going to continue to ask families up and down this country to stop putting new shoes on their children’s feet, while we fill the very large Mercedes fleet of Brussels?” As for Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough, he triumphantly declared that on October 31 parliament - for once - “spoke for the people” and that MPs can now “face their constituents” without shame. Patriotically united against the Brussels bureaucrats.
Naturally, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, was also cock-a-hoop. Perhaps Ukip’s time has come. He thundered in Churchillian style that the house had “voted with the country rather than with the government whips”, adding it was “outrageous” that Cameron was prepared to go to Brussels later in the month and “argue for what he would call a freeze” but what “the rest of us would call an increase in the amount of money removed from British taxpayers to be spent by the distant EU bureaucrats”.
Within the EU itself, squabbling over the draft budget is intensifying. Germany, in particular, is unhappy with the latest proposal by Cyprus - which holds the EU’s current rotating presidency - to reduce spending by €50 billion. This suggestion, sternly noted a prominent German official, “falls markedly short of those that are necessary”. Indeed, the figures named in the budget proposals are “still very far” from the targets being sought by Germany and the other net contributors in the EU - ie, those countries that pay more into the EU’s coffers than they get in return. Germany and other net contributors want to limit the EU’s budget to one percent of the member-states’ GDP - meaning that the EC’s proposed budget would have to be slashed by as much as €130 billion.
But the European parliament, on the other hand, has criticised the EC’s spending plans as being too meagre. And, hardly surprisingly, the putative budget is also backed by the net receivers, which are primarily eastern European countries. They want more Brussels gold, not less. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, is adamant that that the current budget proposals should remain in force - and will continue trying to persuade Britain that a “smart compromise” would end up being a much “cheaper” option. Otherwise, if no compromise is reached, there will be an automatic 2% increase each year for inflation.
Apart from Britain, Denmark and France have also been talking of vetoing a deal unless their priorities are met, while Hungary - which would be one of the biggest losers if the budget was actually slashed - could also balk. Diplomats in Brussels involved in the pre-summit negotiations expect that the scheduled two days will have to be extended, with the odds against securing an agreement - in which case, the European leaders will have to return to the fraught topic early next year.
Talking tough and Eurosceptical, Cameron is promising to draw a “red line” at the EU summit. Speaking in Abu Dhabi on November 6 - in between defending the “legitimate” right of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to “self-defence” - he explained how he would make a “robust” argument for limiting the budget, lambasting the “completely ludicrous” €100 billion increase wanted by some. The next day Angela Merkel met Cameron in Downing Street for further discussions on the matter. Germany has indicated that it is “sympathetic” to the UK’s concerns, but is extremely keen that Cameron shows some “flexibility” at the summit. Only last week, Merkel warned that “veto threats” would not help the EU’s budget negotiations - expecting or hoping that Cameron will back down.
Yet the Eurosceptics have tasted blood - again. Last October they mounted a backbench rebellion, with 81 Tory MPs voting for a motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU - despite the fact that Cameron had ordered his party to oppose it. Two months later, in a bid to placate “the bastards” (as John Major memorably called them), Cameron went like St George to slay the Brussels dragon, vetoing an EU treaty change to enforce stricter fiscal rules in the euro zone - even though the UK would have been totally unaffected by the changes. Courageous. In the end, all the other member-states except the Czech Republic signed a separate treaty instead to get round Cameron’s pathetic manoeuvre, but he returned to Britain like a conquering hero anyway.
Now there is talk once more of an ‘in-out’ referendum on the EU. For the Tory Europhobes, morale is rising and undoubtedly they intend to step up the fight for the ultimate prize - British withdrawal from the hated EU.
Exchanging parliamentary insults on October 31, Ed Balls pontificated about how “weak and out of touch” David Cameron had become - apparently, he was “failing to convince other European leaders”. A curious assertion, when you consider that only hours later he would vote for an amendment effectively calling upon Cameron to give the finger to other EU leaders - ie, veto the budget and then stomp off into the sunset waving the union jack. How would that, apart from pleasing the Daily Mail readership, help to “convince” European leaders as to the legitimacy of Britain’s position?
The plain truth of the matter is that Ed Miliband is guilty of total hypocrisy. It was the previous Labour government, after all, which agreed a big increase in Britain’s net contribution from £3 billion in 2008 to more than £7 billion last year. For once, Cameron was quite right when he condemned Labour for its “rank opportunism”. Labour is guilty of “rank opportunism” and a lot worse besides - putting cynical expediency before anything even vaguely resembling a principled or consistent position on the EU. Just for the sake of enjoying a schoolboy smirk at Cameron’s discomfort, Labour was prepared to align itself with the most reactionary forces inside the Tory Party.
Inevitably, there were immediate grumblings of bitter discontent - a backlash even - from Blairites, Brownites and others, who could not help but agree with Cameron’s assessment of the Labour leadership’s tactics on October 31. For instance, Margaret Hodge - the Blairite former minister who chairs the parliamentary public accounts committee - was heard to describe the Labour vote as “hateful” as she prepared for a meeting of her committee. One former Labour cabinet minister, wanting to remain unnamed for obvious reasons, expressed the worry that Miliband and Balls - whatever their exact intentions on the day - were “stroking a dangerous underbelly of Euroscepticism”.
And what was that about Labour standing for slower, shallower cuts than the Tories? Airports, highways, bridges, railway tracks and other infrastructure projects account for about 35% of the EU budget, according to Reuters. The very sort of spending that Labour is demanding should be protected in the UK in order to create jobs and boost demand. But that is only for good old Blighty, it appears, not Johnny Foreigner. In that sense, and on this particular occasion, Labour - for its own opportunistic reasons - was actually pushing for ‘quicker, deeper’ cuts than those advocated by David Cameron or George Osborne.
Responding to the vote, Nick Clegg said that in an “ideal world” he would prefer a reduction in the EU budget. But regrettably the government could not wave a “magic wand” and get everything it wants. A “grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing”, Clegg remarked, but in reality it is a “false promise wrapped in a union jack” - one that could possibly trigger a British exit from the EU with “catastrophic” results.
Clegg’s warning about a “false promise wrapped in a union jack” could equally apply to the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Not for the first time, nor sadly for the last, the Tories’ Europhobia has overlapped with the CPB’s left nationalism - or national socialism - as shown by the November 2 edition of the Morning Star. Needless to say, it thoroughly approves of the Labour decision to support the Tory rebels’ ‘anti-EU’ amendment.
Hence in an article entitled, ‘Pressure rises for in-out vote on EU’, we read a typically bland piece of Morning Star reportage. Yawn and move on, you could say. But, of course, what is really being presented to the readership is the CPB ‘line’ on the EU and the European question in general. So Roger Bagley approvingly writes how Labour’s “changed stance” was “welcomed by campaigners for an in-out referendum” on Britain’s EU membership. We further read that People’s Pledge spokesman Mark Seddon declared that the “tectonic plates are shifting” and how wonderful it is that Ed Miliband is “moving with them”. Good old ‘Red’ Ed. We also discover that Seddon thinks the global economic crisis caused by the “greed and stupidity of unfettered market forces” has been “compounded by the response” of the EC - determined as it is, according to comrade Bagley, to “heap insult on injury by demanding substantial budget increases”. Presumably we are meant to be heartened that this outrageous slight upon the British nation “was too much for Labour”, which thus did the honourable thing by voting with rightwing Tory Euroscpetics against Cameron.
The article continues by quoting Brian Denny, the convenor of No2EU, fulminating against the “admission” by “arch-Europhile” Nick Clegg that there is “no hope” of reducing the EU budget - which only reveals, says Denny, “how undemocratic it all is”. For Denny, notes the Morning Star, it shows the “need for a complete reassessment of Britain’s relationship to the EU by the labour movement in order to bring down this Con-Dem government”.
The Star’s editorial in the same issue (‘Double-speak over the EU’) makes its myopic nationalist stance even clearer: “Despite rhetoric about fighting for the best deal for Britain and hinting at a veto,” it laments, David Cameron has “already sold the pass” to the Brussels bureaucrats. As for the “Eurocentralist” Clegg, his rejection of “any possibility of a real contributions freeze” to the EU budget means he is “suggesting that the government cannot wave a ‘magic wand’ and that denying the unelected commission its way could result in annual budgets that Britain would have no alternative but to accept.” This indicates, the “contempt” Clegg has for democracy and “why he has gone cold on his previous support” for an in-out EU referendum. He would have this country “locked into the euro zone” and on the “way to the European superstate that dare not speak its name, but continues to solidify”.
Anticipating some of the objections to its left nationalism, the editorial rhetorically asks: “Critics of the Morning Star line on the EU ask: why concentrate on the role of the EU, when Britain’s conservative coalition is committed to a similar agenda, dictated by the City of London?” An excellent question, it does have to be said. Unfortunately, the answer is less admirable: “It’s because voters in Britain still have the power - albeit hitherto unused - to vote out this bunch of bankers’ valets and elect a government committed to public ownership of the banks, rail and public utilities, support for manufacturing and public services, decent pensions and transferring the onus of taxation from working people to big business and wealthy tax dodgers. The finance-sector stranglehold is institutionalised within the euro zone, making any such programme unrealisable under the iron grip of the ECB, EU Commission and European Court of Justice. The labour movement should welcome this parliamentary defeat for the coalition and resist all efforts to impose continent-wide austerity”.
That’s a new one - you resist austerity by demanding cuts. Of course, we in the CPGB are unequivocally opposed to austerity - whether in the UK or the EU. However, our answer to the capitalist crisis gripping Europe is proletarian internationalism on a continent-wide basis, not the CPB’s “magic wand” of left nationalism and isolationism. The 20th century was scarred by the disastrous and barbaric Stalinist experiment of socialism in one country, which must not be repeated - that would be a real catastrophe for the working class. Unlike the CPB and Tory Eurosceptics - an unholy alliance if ever there was one - genuine communists do not want to ‘pull out’ of the EU any more than we want to withdraw from the UK. And go where - the moon? Instead, insofar as the EU represents a ‘superstate’ and to the extent that it objectively creates a single European working class, we want to organise, educate and agitate within and across it.