Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Europragmaticsm - a sensible EU approach from an unlikely source...

Yes kids, that's right! It's the most exciting day of the year - EU budget day! Weeeeeeeeeee!

If you really, really must, EU Politix have a nice (mercifully short) summary of the usual potential issues - notably the spat between the European Parliament and the European Commission over budget cuts, staffing levels and the like.

It's all same old, same old - only the EP does, at least, finally seem to be acting a tad more like the scrutinising body it should be. (Even if scores of MEPs do still rip us all off with their extortionate expenses and fraudulent "attendance" claims... But shush about that...)

However, moderately interesting (considering it was a speech by someone from the Treasury to a group of Accountants - the after-talk party must have been wild...) EU budget-related news came yesterday, via Gordon Brown's mouthpiece, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury Ed Balls - who has been his master's voice on EU matters before.

The Guardian covered this briefly yesterday, before the speech had been delivered - and the always quick-off-the-mark Richard North of EU Referendum was quick to have a chuckle at the "Europhile" Grauniad's expense for their confusion about whether Brown/Balls are pro- or anti-EU.

Because, of course, there's no possibility of breaking the dichotomy of attitudes to the EU - you're either in favour of absolutely everything the EU does and stands for or you're utterly opposed to the whole institution, and there's no room for a more subtle, relatively impartial approach. Which is why passing EU-sceptics have accused me of being Europhile, and passing pro-EU types have labelled me as Eurosceptic. (More on this later...)

What is moderately surprising, however, is that there appears to have been no follow-up to Ball's excitingly-titled Speech to the Annual Conference of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, or what implications this and his previous EU statements may have for a Brown premiership's attitude towards Brussels.

Balls' statement that "if the EU Budget is to inspire tax-payer confidence, there is more to be done. We need the highest levels of scrutiny and the most rigorous lines of accountability" is obviously spot on. For twelve years, the budget has been criticised by the European Court of Auditors for not being even half accounted for - last year, two thirds was spent on God alone knows what. It gives the anti-EU types all kinds of ammunition, and precisely bugger all for those who want to point to the benefits of the EU. Because, after all, how can you say "the EU did this" if you haven't got any real proof that it was EU money that paid for it?

Balls also mentions the House of Lords European Union Committee's report Financial Management and Fraud in the European Union: Perceptions, Facts and Proposals, which looks to be well worth more careful study (as per usual, the House of Lords proving its worth by doing a far better job of keeping tabs on what the EU's up to than any MP).

The House of Lords report underlines once again where the EU's budgetary problems lie: not in Brussels with the bureaucrats, as many assume, but in the individual member states:

"some 85% of all spending was and still is carried out by Member State agencies, rather than by the central European Institutions themselves... the European Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control has long asked for a "breakdown of the Member States or of the different areas like agriculture [or] structural funds" ...We support calls for the European Court of Auditors to produce a list of those Member States demonstrating poor management of European funds. We consider that such a list would encourage all Member State governments to take this issue seriously. Such a list should only be produced on the basis of accurate data and so will require the development of a sound basis for payment transaction sampling."
Now, it seems, the Treasury is following the Lords' lead - and also seemingly attempting to lead the EU by example, Balls stating in his speech that
"because we are determined that the UK should take the lead in demonstrating how EU funds can be managed to the highest standards, I am today announcing proposals to enhance national-level auditing of EU expenditure in the UK... Following detailed discussions with the National Audit Office and Parliamentary colleagues, the Government intends to lay before Parliament an annual consolidated statement on the UK's implementation of EU spending, prepared to international accounting standards, and audited by the National Audit Office"
In other words, for the first time since joining the EEC/EU three decades ago, the UK will be able to see a more accurate picture of just what the financial cost/benefit is. Or, at least, when it comes to public funds - as it will remain utterly impossible by their very nature to see the wider costs and benefits of EU membership in terms of investment, business and the like.

What this will in turn do is enable anti-EU types to find countless examples of what they consider to be wasteful EU spending (heaven forbid that there should be an EU-funded lesbian single mothers theatre group of the kind always targeted by the Daily Mail when it comes to Lottery funding...) - hell, they could even attack the additional expenditure that producing such a detailed audit will require - while pro-EU types will finally have some definite figures to use in counter-arguments when asked "what's the EU ever done for us?"

And then, should our fellow member states see fit to follow suit, who knows? We may even, as a continent, be able to get a better idea of just what we're spending money on when it comes to the EU - and so finally be able to tell if it really is worth all the fuss and bother.

There's a lot more in Balls' speech that is of note - and potentially promising for a more pragmatic approach to the EU than we have really seen from any Prime Minister (assuming Brown gets it) in a long time. If Gordon can team up with France's potential next President, the seemingly equally pragmatic Ségolène Royal, and Eu-hesitant German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then statements like this from Balls could well lead us to a much better future:
"the EU should act only where there are clear additional benefits from collective efforts compared to action solely by individual Member States - rather than 'more EU' for the sake of it. That is what a hard-headed pro-Europeanism, based squarely on advancing both our national interest and the EU public interest, demands."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much sums up my attitude towards the European Union. Balls' statements in paragraphs 50-59 of that speech, if they lay out the Prime Minister Brown approach to the EU, show a genuinely sensible attitude towards the whole institution.

If they get anywhere near succeeding, who knows - we might finally be able to supplement the tired and frequently inaccurate binary labels of "Eurosceptic" and "Europhile" with the long-overdue "Europragmatic". That's what I'd label myself - and I have no doubt that there are many more out there who would feel similarly, put off by both the federalists and the withrawalists.

To date, there has been no one at a sufficiently senior level willing to fight for that little bit more subtlety and flexibility within the EU that could - just could - see it adapt enough to maintain its survival. With the imminent departure of both Blair and Chirac, following the loss of Schröder, the EU-3 could - just could - finally in 2007 have the kind of pragmatic leadership required to drive through the genuine reforms that, 50 years after the union's birth, are long, long overdue. The Merkel/Brown/Royal threesome (yuk - sorry, bad mental image) could well be just what the EU needs.

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