Saturday, June 18, 2005

EU budget: Why should Poles subsidize the Brits?

Another day in Brussels, another crisis. Britain wants to keep its budget rebate, and expects countries like Poland to pick up the tab. Since when was the EU meant to be an organization where poor countries have to foot the bill for the rich ones?

In the first few months after New Labour won the general election in 1997, one of Tony Blair’s favourite guests to have round for tea, cakes and pep talk was Margaret Thatcher. Tony valued her advice; the Lady liked the attention.

Thatcher gave the new boy many pieces of advice, including: keep taxes low and put up with the second class public services; do not on any account repeal Tory trade union legislation; and do not in any circumstances hand back the frogs and krauts in the EU her budget rebate, won for Britain in 1984.

Contrary to his popular image, Tony really is a good listener.

Watching the New Labour crowd in Brussels this week reminds the beatroot of Thatcher in her heyday, stomping around smoke-filled negotiation rooms hand-bagging any dissenting Eurocrats who dared to try and slip their hands in her purse.

Those smoke-filled rooms are now as rare as a smoke filled pub in Ireland. Another difference today is that Madge was a conviction politician. She really was a Little Englander.
Blair’s opposition to handing back any of her hard won rebate is more out of the usual desperate attempt to connect with a British electorate that is semi-detached from the EU, and semi-detached from the political class in the UK.

Watch Blair and Straw looking butch before the cameras, explaining to the rest of us that the Common Agricultural Policy needs reforming if it is ‘to be relevant to the modern world’. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Blair claimed that he would only agree to freezing the rebate at 2005 prices if the CAP was reformed. The agricultural policy accounts for 40% of the EU budget. Blair thinks that the budget should be spent on education, training and the environment, and not lining the nests of those pesky French farmers.

The beatroot cannot find any evidence of this UK policy in any manifesto. In fact, it seems the policy has been plucked out the air just before New Labour turned up in Brussels this week. This new found interest in the CAP is just another piece of Blairite oppotunism.

In 1984, when Thatcher snatched the rebate, Britain was one of the poorer nations of the Union. These days, it’s the richest.

Poland, the second poorest member, is now paying 200 million euros every year just to pay for that rebate.

All of the new members from central Europe, most of them impoverished by decades of communism, were so desperate to secure a budget deal that they offered to sacrifice some funds from EU coffers in a dramatic last-ditch attempt to revive the stalled negotiations.

The delay means that Poland cannot go ahead with the much needed building of new motorways and other infrastructure projects.

So not only was Poland – a country that has around 20% of its population involved in some way with agriculture – willing to forgo some of its subsidies because poor old, cash-strapped Britain doesn’t want to give up some of the Thatcher rebate, but it is even willing to go on paying some of its bills.

Blair’s argument that the CAP needs reforming on moral grounds looks a little hollow.

From July 1, the UK is going to be EU president for six months. It is going to have to sort out the Constitutional Treaty crisis and do something about the budget. Poorer nations be warned: keep your hands on your wallets – New Labour is in town!

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