Last night David Cameron experienced a defeat in the Commons: 53 Conservative MPs joined with labour to pass an amendment for real term cuts in EU spending between 2014 and 2020. This is the most significant defeat since the coalition came to power. However, the negative impact on the coalition looks less likely than the future stalemate when it comes to further debate on the EU Budget.
The amendment, put forward by Tory backbencher Mark Reckless, passed with a 13 vote majority (307 votes to 294). It has been argued that this vote represented a watershed moment on Britain’s financial support for the EU. As Tory MP Douglas Carswell puts it: “For the first time ever the House of Commons came together as a legislature and said enough is enough to the Whitehall elite”. This may well be the case, but the amendment is not binding. However Cameron will find it very hard to ignore such a depth of feeling in the Commons when he goes to negotiate.
This amendment has shown what the commons wants but, in my opinion, a cut in spending is neigh on impossible given the lack of support amongst the other 27 EU member states. When you consider the economic positions of many member states this becomes more evident. So the most likely outcome in response to Cameron following the will of the majority in the Commons and aiming for real term cuts in the budget is one of the other member states using its power to veto. As a unanimous decision is required to pass any changes to the budget, a stalemate is likely to occur. Subsequently, if no agreement is reached by the end of next year, the 2013 budget will be rolled into 2014 with a 2% rise to account for inflation.
Before last night’s vote, Cameron made his desires for the EU budget clear: “At best we would like it cut, at worst frozen”. William Hague outlines this further by saying “MPs on both sides of the argument wanted EU spending to be kept down as effectively as possible”. And why shouldn’t it be? We are having cuts at home, so should the EU. The difference in debate is over tactics and by restricting Cameron’s hands, the UK is in a less strong position when it comes to the negotiations. Cameron’s expectants of freezing the budget being an option is not the only answer, but it may well have had a better reception from the other member states.
Europe has been an issue that has split the conservative party numerous times before; most evidentially in John Major’s government in the 1990s. The opposition have been quick to draw attention to this connection and to the apparent damage to the coalition that this vote could have. However, this negative attention needs to be taken with a pinch of salt when it comes from the opposition. Some would even go as far as calling it rank hypocrisy when you consider their track record with regards to the EU. That’s enough of party politics. The real question that needs to be addressed is: ‘Is there an alternative route that needs to be discussed?’
The direction of the expenditure of the EU needs to be discussed just as much as the budget: CAP for example, which accounts for around 50% of the budget amongst other things, needs to be reformed.
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