Cameron’s European spin too far

by Denis MacShane

Having lived through years of European councils, I am not surprised that David Cameron, like his predecessors, is obsessed with the need of all EU leaders to spin their way to “victory” headlines for domestic consumption. Instead of a common news conference where EU leaders would have to declare in front of each other what they had done or decided, each national press corps meets with its national leader to be fed the line.

David Cameron is no different. He went into his own news conference after the EU council with clear objectives.

First, to underline that the European Parliament’s overblown ambition for a six per cent increase in the EU budget was trimmed back.

Second, to throw up as big a smoke-screen as possible about the need for an EU treaty change which, under Cameron’s previous pledges and rhetoric, would require a referendum. Every EU treaty alters the balance of power between national control and an enhanced role for the EU. If that were not the case, there would be no point writing new treaty language.

The big power shifts came under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but even the “small treaty changes” which chancellor Merkel called for at her press conference on Friday will mean more power for the EU commission to oversee national governments’ fiscal plans.

National parliaments will still decide policy, but within a framework henceforth that cedes surveillance and supervision powers to the EU as a whole.

No one in Brussels wants to go through another Irish, let alone a UK, referendum; so there will be a maximum of spin to reassure voters that the treaty changes are small. But sovereignty-sharing creep is again under way. Mrs Merkel cannot legally, under the German constitution, grant Brussels more authority without a treaty change approved by the Bundestag.
As Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said in a Welt am Sonntag interview yesterday “If you want to protect Europe (from more Greek-style crises) you have to change the rules”.

Mrs Merkel met David Cameron at Chequers yesterday. The real focus will have been on the return of terrorism as a global threat. Both leaders will pat themselves on the back that the European Parliament’s proposed EU budget increase was seen off. It was always a non-runner. Cameron’s efforts to claim a UK victory for what was never going to happen are a spin too far.

All EU member states are going through painful budget deficit reductions and changes in benefit payments. Just look at the turbulence in France. Naturally, MEPs want more cash for their favourite projects. Cameron’s allies in the nationalist Polish PiS party voted for the increase, a point missed in the UK coverage of the MEPs’ decision.

But MEPs know that they are not going to get a big increase. In fact, the 2.9 per cent hike which Cameron is pretending is a victory goes against his own policy of major cuts in government spending. One does not have to be a Eurosceptic Tory MP – of whom there are far more than is commonly realised – to work out that it is a bit odd for Cameron to agree a boost to EU spending as every other area of UK public spending faces cuts.

But nor should it be forgotten that EU transfers come straight back to member states in the form of agricultural subsidies and regional investment. Britain got billions at the end of the 1990s as many of our regions had become so poor under Thatcher and Major that they became eligible for EU structural fund support.

For good or ill, Britain under Labour became a much richer country and such funds now go to poorer areas of new member states. The architect of this solidarity transfer policy was Margaret Thatcher. She approved a massive increase in the EU budget in 1984 to pay for Spanish, Portuguese and Greek accession. She span her way out of this by making the UK rebate the only story in town. It remains to be seen if Dave can get away with a similar sleight of hand.

It will be tempting for Labour to proclaim that any rise in the budget is unacceptable and that a Labour government would have been tougher with Brussels. This is nonsense. Labour should focus on asking Cameron why he is dropping his pledge to hold a referendum on changes to the treaty and point out that his new NASH allies (NASH –“nutters, anti-semites and homophobes” in Nick Clegg’s pungent description of Tory allies in Europe) also voted for a major EU budget increase.

Yvette Cooper was right last week to focus on Cameron’s refusal to support the EU sex slave trafficking directive which the Independent on Sunday highlighted yesterday. Labour must be careful to avoid the mistakes of the 1980s when a nativist Euroscepticism sought to attract votes which today have long been lost to the BNP and UKIP.

The Tories are in a stew over Europe as Cameron’s Euroscepticism, which he highlighted in opposition meets the reality of Britain’s national government interest which requires active participation in EU affairs. Labour should give the stew a gentle turn but not look for headlines which would drag the party back to its 1980s cul-de-sac on Europe.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

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2 Responses to “Cameron’s European spin too far”

  1. John Eastwood says:

    >For good or ill, Britain under Labour became a much richer country and such funds now go to poorer areas of new member states.


    In reality, a load of poorer countries joined the EU, and so it the money that used to go to poorer parts of the UK instead ended up headed to them.

    To claim this was because Britain was getting richer under Labour is disingenuous nonsense.

    FWIW, I think Cameron is a Europhile like Major, Blair and Brown all were.
    Maggie was the last prime minister willing to do battle to any significant extent, and even she gave away as much as she fought back.

  2. “Labour must be careful to avoid the mistakes of the 1980s when a nativist Euroscepticism sought to attract votes which today have long been lost to the BNP and UKIP.”

    Long been lost? This is errant nonsense. Much of the BNP vote can be regained when Labour reconnects and the BNP show their uselessness (it happens in councils all over the country every year); the UKIP vote in European elections (as distinct from general elections) includes many voters who would otherwise vote Labour.

    An anti-EU stance is not politically credible. But let’s be honest – most people in this country are not Europhiles and labour must recognise this. Complaints about the lack of transparency in the European Commission might be a good place to start, but whatever it is, we need to demonstrate that we are in the EU for specific reasons and we will fight against those things that do not fit with said reasons.

    Otherwise we just enable the super-state conspiracy theorists.

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