The British public is bracing itself next week for deep spending cuts when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne unveils plans for unprecedented reductions to departmental budgets in the Comprehensive Spending Review on Wednesday.
Ireland and the Baltic states are already experiencing the pain that comes with their national austerity measures. Other European countries like Sweden, France and Germany are also scaling back public sector spending. Even the new left wing government in Greece is slashing the public sector – although it hardly has a choice in the matter after a humiliating European bail-out.
It is understandable then that EU member state governments were appalled at the European Commission’s proposal to increase the EU budget by nearly 6%. At a time, when difficult decisions on job cuts and wage freezes in the public sector are being made by national governments, the EU asks for more money.
It is, of course, the centre-right governments across Europe that are introducing the austerity measures they believe will stabilise their economies and help bring about a sustainable recovery. Some are more enthusiastic than others. Nevertheless, the European centre-right consensus is real cuts need to be made and need to made immediately.
It is strange then that the Centre-Right majority in the European Parliament has taken an entirely different view when it comes to the European Union budget. The European People’s Party believe that there should be more public spending – not less – for the
EU to invest in growth and jobs for the future.
Sidonia Jedzejewska – a Polish MEP in the Centre Right EPP Group, is drafting the European Parliament’s report on the 2011 budget. He believes that the EU should be able to properly fund cross-border education and training programmes if it is to add value.
When the European Council agreed to a lower budget increase than the 5.9% proposed by the Commission, the European Parliament, led by the EPP, responded by re-instating the 5.9% increase. This matters because after the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament now has a say in the Budget. Previously it would just be asked to approve the over-all amount. Now it can negotiate on individual budgets for transport and fisheries and so on. MEPs have already threatened to block funding for ITER, the international nuclear fusion reactor project.
On October 5, after a bruising debate, the Budget Committee of the EU Parliament voted to reject the Council’s proposal to limit the increase to 2.91%. The Council said that a 5.9% increase on 2010 – giving an overall EU budget of €130.14billion – was “politically unrealistic”.
The UK government goes further. It sees the proposal increase as – at the very least – insensitive.
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron told a joint press conference in London with Danish counterpart Lars Lokke Rasmussen that the figures should be progressively "reduced rather than increased." The UK's net transfer to EU institutions is set to rise from £6.4 billion this year to £8.3 billion in 2011-12.
On 30th September, Vince Cable, the UK’s business minister spoke to MEPs in the European Parliament: He said; “At a time when national governments, including mine, are having to make very painful cuts in public spending, no one can understand why the European budget is not being subjected to the same discipline.” Clearly, this has fallen on deaf ears.
The most audacious part of the Commission’s budget plans is the four percent increase for administration costs. The Commission has even gone to the European Court of Justice to save planned pay increases for EC officials after Council threatened to impose a freeze.
The European Parliament – along with the Commission – believe that there is a need to increase EU funds to compensate for the short-falls that will come about in national public spending. MEPs are particularly concerned that infrastructure and regional development projects would suffer. However they go much further than ring-fencing investment projects – they have also rejected a Council proposal for a €820.71m cut to the hugely bloated agriculture and fisheries sectors.
While tax payers have been asked to indirectly or directly shoulder the costs of getting through the financial crisis, can the EU conceivably demand for more?
National governments are forced to take measures to cut national defence spending, reduce child benefits, postpone school building schemes, lay off thousands of workers. Is this the right time for MEPs to make the case for more money for cross-border student exchange schemes, bee-keeping research or the Palestinian Authority? MEPs are worried that if the EU does less, it would become less relevant. If the EU does less, but does it well, they should have nothing to fear. The EU budget should not be used as a substitute for another European stimulus package. It should be there to support growth, jobs and prosperity, for the long-term success of the single market.
The fight over the EU budget is set to rumble on. The European Parliament will vote on the Committee’s recommendation during the plenary session in Strasbourg next week.
Although the Parliament will continue to push the limits of its mandate and test the patience of the Council in doing so, ultimately it does not have the power to impose its will on the national governments. Perhaps, instead MEPs should reconcile itself to the political imperative across Europe. Rather than re-start a debate over stimulus versus austerity, it should accept the new reality, while securing as best it can its constituent interests.