On Radio 4 today, I caught a news snippet which involved much gnashing over MEPs failure to cut their expenses provision by 20% as part of its budget 2012 proposals, opting instead for a 5% decrease. It made no reference of the much more important context which is that the European Parliament was voting on its draft 2012 budget proposal.
This encapsulates neatly the disdain and misinformation with which the British media reports European matters. Personally, I think MEPs should have gone with the Portugese socialist MEPs’ proposal to cut expenses’ provision by 20% but I’m much more interested in what else was in the budget.
The EU budget process is a tortuous one. The Parliament makes a proposal and votes for it. Then it gets passed to the Council ie member states who invariably have a bit whack at it. This year was no exception. The first draft was a budget for growth; the member states reckoned MEPs were having a laugh, slashed it and sent it back to MEPs. The vote on Wednesday was on a revised second draft, with the proposal to increase the EU budget, and therefore, member states’ contributions, by 5.2% was passed, with 431 MEPs voting for the increased budget, 120 voting against and 124 abstaining.
For the record, not a single Scottish MEP voted for the budget proposal. Voting no might have been sensible politically but the breakdown of what money where suggests some thought had been applied to the proposals. Sometimes, you win the battle of the headlines but lose the war on policy.
It was styled by the European Parliament as a budget for “growth, employment and innovation in the Union” and for “supporting development and democracy in neighbouring countries”. Key decisions included increasing the budgets for research and development (by 8.8%) and cohesion and structural funds (by 10.35%), justified by the need to meet the cost of projects committee to earlier in the budgetary cycle. Cuts here would mean key infrastructure projects not going ahead, especially in the poorer EU countries. But it was also claimed as required to create future economic growth and employment.
Interestingly, the European Parliament knocked back proposals from member states to fund the EU’s nuclear fusion programme from within existing budget streams in research and development, insisting that this additional burden should be funded through new money. Hopefully, this now puts the plans to invest in this activity in jeopardy.
An increase was also agreed for Freedom, Security and Justice in order to tighten maritime surveillance for illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean but also to support “refugee and migration flows”.
Significant sums were added to the budgets for the Middle East Peace process and to assist Palestine refugees (100 million euros), and with one eye on a tense corner of Europe and the other firmly on Turkish accession to the EU, 3 million euros was allocated to the Turkish-Cypriot Community.
A small increase was agreed to the administration budget for the Parliament, largely to accommodate an extra 18 MEPs, but other areas of expenditure, such as translation and interpretation, as well as travel expenses, were cut.
The fact is there’s not a lot there to disagree with and other than fear of attracting the usual offensive headlines in some of the more rabid right wing tabloids. one wonders why Scottish MEPs voted against the budget – because the UK is a net contributor and therefore would gain little from more money flowing out of our coffers and into the joint kitty? Probably but how shortsighted. However badly off we have it in Britain, there are others – Palestinians for one – much worse off elsewhere.
Everyone has to tighten their belts in the current climate, and if it’s good enough for Scottish and UK Governments, then it is obvious why it was deemed necessary to vote down the second draft budget. There might even have been an element of luxury voting, that is knowing that the budget would be passed anyway, and your vote not being needed.
So what happens now? Diplomatic pingpong effectively. There is a 21 day conciliation period which starts in November, involving meetings between MEPs and the European Council. There will also be trilogues, but I don’t know what these mean. It sounds painful, and it probably is. If it all goes swimmingly – ha! – the 2012 EU budget could be agreed at the beginning of December.
Which gives us all something to look forward to.