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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowThough any issue that leads to a parliamentary defeat of the government is bound to be seen as a big deal, the recent row over the EU budget may look like a storm in a tea cup a few weeks down the road. Its long-term significance, however, should not be measured by the spray-paint thinness of the arguments deployed.

An unholy alliance between a Labour Party desperate to score points and a Tory right eager to flex its Eurosceptic muscles revolved around an attempt to force David Cameron to seek a cut in the EU financial settlement, rather than a freeze.

This is gesture politics par excellence, since there is no real chance of achieving it. But the willingness of Labour to toy with anti-Europeans, and the claim by German-born MP Gisela Stuart that Britain might need to disengage from the European Union, is still remarkable.

To say such a thing would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Since then we have seen an enveloping Eurozone crisis, the growth of UKIP, and deepening resistance to federalism at Westminster.

The irony here is that UK parties opposed to an independent Scotland have either become more inward-looking or (in the case of the Liberal Democrats) have forgotten their federalist instincts.

On the other hand, a swathe of the independence lobby for wider solidarity within Europe - the SNP's previous slogan - while forging distinct, autonomous domestic policies within these islands. Confederalism by any other name.

Meanwhile, the temporary Labour-Conservative alliance, which senior MP Margaret Hodge called 'outrageous', is premised on the same old economic consensus that austerity is the best way out of recession.

In fact, the EU budget, which has been falling in real terms as a proportion of member states' GDPs over the past ten years, is principally about investment.  Administration accounts for around seven per cent. Even the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) portion has fallen from 70 per cent to 30 per cent over the past 20 years.

Moreover, while Britain's net annual EU contribution amounts to about £115 per head of population, the long-term benefits through financial multipliers, economies of scale and research & development far outweigh this.

Of course there is room for real, substantial reform. The CAP remains an iniquitous example of subsidising waste and wealth. Regional policy requires constant adjustment. Environmental impact and social cohesion should shape competition policy, rather than the other way round.

There is also a serious democratic deficit within the European polity and a flawed fiscal faith in cutting budgets rather than rebuilding economies. But to address these issues properly, Britain's political leaders should abandon rather than feed the constrained mindset that the EU budget row exemplifies.

Simon Barrow