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Stephen O'Brien MP: Cuts to the EU budget should be focused on inefficient areas. Overseas aid is not one of them.

O'brien stephen Stephen O’Brien is the Member of Parliament for Eddisbury, the Prime Minister’s Envoy and UK Special Representative for the Sahel, a former DFID Minister and Co-Chair of the Conservative Friends of International Development.

The case for a smaller European Union budget is clear: at a time of belt tightening across the continent it is wrong that countries are being asked to contribute more to Brussels. European governments are attempting to do more with less – the EU should do likewise. The Prime Minister will be speaking for ordinary European citizens when he stands up for this at today’s leaders’ summit.

As Conservatives we should make clear which parts of the EU budget should be protected, and which parts should face the biggest cuts. We should push for cuts to be focused on long-time follies such as the inefficient Common Agricultural Policy. We should also make a strong argument for protecting areas where the EU has added value, such as the small fraction spent on overseas aid programmes that are delivering results for some of the world’s poorest people. The prospect – put on the table by Herman van Rompuy – that the proposal for the European Development Fund will be cut by 11% while the EU’s own administration budget is reduced by just 0.85% is a classic example of wrong-headed Brussels thinking.

There are three reasons why Conservatives should support EU aid. First, it is essential to bringing other European countries up towards the 0.7% promise that the UK will deliver on in 2013. The leverage effect is significant as many countries don’t have the capacity to scale up their own aid spending domestically. It is a leverage effect with no net cost to the British taxpayer – if we reduce our aid spending through the EU we will reallocate it elsewhere as part of our 0.7% commitment with no obligation for other countries to match us. The Prime Minister said that through the G8 Presidency the UK will "be holding other countries to account for their [aid] promises too". The EU budget negotiations are a critical vehicle for this effort.

Second, our leadership has improved the quality of EU aid since 2010. During my time at DFID I had responsibility for Europe, and we successfully pushed the European Commission to make improvements in transparency, to end programmes in middle-income countries like China and Brazil, and to focus ruthlessly on value for money and results. In DFID’s Multilateral Aid Review, the key EU aid instruments scored well. In six years, it has meant 50 million people were stopped from being hungry, nine million children have enrolled in primary education, five million have been vaccinated against measles and 31 million people have been connected to drinking water. Put simply, our party’s approach to aid and development in Government has been adopted wholesale by the EU. This encourages less impact-driven donors like France and Italy to spend their aid better. We must now play a watchdog role to ensure that the worst habits of the EU institutions don’t creep back into the aid programmes, but it is clear that EU aid is currently a good investment, and relative to other parts of the EU budget, a very good investment. Indeed, recent research reinforces that EU aid should more than pay for itself in terms of the knock-on economic growth and trade benefits within the Union by 2020.

Third, before the 2010 general election, we made clear that despite the tough economic climate, cutbacks shouldn’t cost lives. The Comprehensive Spending Review that followed saw delivery of that commitment through the budget settlements for the NHS and DFID. The EU negotiations kicking off today are its version of the CSR – setting spending priorities for the next 7 years. The 5% of the budget proposal earmarked for the poorest people in the world’s poorest countries– €21 billion in the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI) and €30 billion in the European Development Fund (EDF) – is the DFID-equivalent. Our logic of protecting people living in unimaginable extreme poverty from further suffering should be consistent from London to Brussels.

This week’s negotiations will be tough. We should all support the Prime Minister’s determination to bring down the size of the EU’s spending over the next 7 years. And we should propose the deepest cuts to the most inefficient spending areas, while protecting those that work. The EU aid budget is one of those areas and as Conservatives we should give it our backing.


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