Yesterday’s European Council, on good sources, has endorsed something very close to the original text put forward by the working group on economic governance. We explored back on Monday some of the key problems in that document, ConservativeHome beating the newspapers on this occasion by a good 48 hours. It is now plain that a number of the evident issues of concern (including the weird precedent of ‘reversed QMV’) are clearly still in the end agreement.
Let’s put the events of the last two days into some form of context. The Council is looking at handing back to the UK a sum maybe, perhaps, in the order of £400 million. After the embarrassing confusion both from former Europe spokesman Ed Davey and former EU minister Chris Bryant last night on Question Time on how much the sum came to, we can allow ourselves the luxury here of a little ball park latitude.
That, of course, is not a rebate. Given the nature of the budget, it is effectively a one-off payment. It is, moreover, a one-off repayment of part of a surcharge.
Imagine you rented a house or flat where the rent kept going up, year after year. But your landlord was the worst sort. He never mowed the front lawn. The ornamental pond had lots of dead fish floating around in it. You had no locks on the doors and your co-tenants with impunity raided your fridge and your tool collection and never brought anything back. Then one day you came back from work to find that he’d gone into your flat and taken £100 out of your wallet to increase the rent. Getting £50 back would not, I suggest, be a triumph, nor for that matter a permanent solution to your housing issues.
£400 million of British taxpayer money returned is equally not a solution.
£3.4 billion is already being spent on the EU’s diplomatic pretensions. The CAP has a £10.3 billion price tag attached to the British economy. £2.81 billion is being squandered thanks to the CFP. Then there is the growing cost of the EU Defence bill, and the reality attached to increasing cooperation in JHA matters. So while it is a positive move, and I would suggest even a significant policy change at Whitehall, for the British Government to attach a bill to other EU countries forming go-ahead groups where the UK has an opt out, the price tag falls short of what is both achievable and necessary to establish an enduring solution.
We have a Commission prepared to spend millions on open propaganda material (hat tip: the sterling England Expects blog). We have the Court of Auditors acknowledging (see box 10) delays in cutting red tape over EU legal obligations for businesses, that the Commission costed five years ago at an incredible €123.8 billion, and of which at least a quarter has already been deemed excessive by Brussels itself. We have even gotten ourselves into the predicament that sovereignty has so flown from Westminster that ministers have to ask the Commission for permission to allow horses into the country in preparation for the equestrian events in the Olympic Games.
At least the recently-published ban on the use of alcohol in competition ten pin bowling was still just about within British ministerial remit.
This is so much Groundhog Day. Nine years ago, the heads of government set out a list of measures that should be explored to make a democratic EU work. The Laeken Declaration was a massive missed opportunity, the EU’s last chance for systemic reform, and only properly explored by the remarkable work undertaken by David Heathcoat-Amory during the European Convention.
We live now in an age of QMV, indeed now of new topsy-turvy reverse QMV. Opportunities for Britain to force reform will be increasingly rare, which is of course why we ended up with the budget increase mess in the first place. If Laeken is to be finally dumped, if the last chance to implement reforms is to be cast aside, if no powers are ever to be repatriated, then patently we now live in an unvarnished new reality. If there exists neither the prospect nor the will for reform, there remains no other alternative than for this country to leave the European Union.