Over the last 20 years the United Kingdom has become much more European, but also Europe has become much more British. Britain has influenced the shape of the EU probably more than any other country.
The single market was a British idea. English is the most-used language in EU institutions. The European diplomatic service is run by Baroness Catherine Ashton. Most importantly, the British have brought to the EU a pragmatic approach and policy-making realism.
Yet British public opinion and politics is more Eurosceptic than ever. When Britain held a referendum in 1975 on EEC membership, 67% voted “yes”. Today almost half the population would rather leave the EU. Why is this?
The House of Commons has decided that the UK should take a more radical approach to the EU budget negotiations, demanding drastic cuts. This EU budget is roughly 1% of the GDP of all members of the EU. UK public spending is about 50% of GDP. The UK’s annual national contribution is about £9bn. Put another way: in 2011 the contribution from every UK citizen did not exceed £150. At the same time Italy and Germany paid up to 50% more, and wealthier states, such as Sweden and Denmark, pay twice as much for every one of their citizens.
Some of the money also returns to London. Moreover, every UK household “earns” between £1,500 and £3,500 each year thanks to the single market, according to UK government estimates. Irregularities in EU spending – around 3.5% is being questioned – are no bigger than those in national budgets. This is money well spent. The commission proposed a real terms freeze of the multi-annual budget at the 2013 level. So what is it that the UK really wants?
From the very beginning, Britain has called for cuts of around €200bn compared to the commission’s proposal – cuts that would hinder the growth agenda in Europe. Then comes the British rebate – another British priority. When Margaret Thatcher negotiated the rebate in the 1980s she did so to ensure fairness. If there had been no rebate, the UK would have paid more to the common budget than the other countries. Today the situation has changed, but the UK payments remain intact. The British rebate should also be discussed.
The UK’s position means that the country is no longer a force for the modernisation of the EU budget. Simply put, there remains just one justification for the British rebate – the common agricultural policy (CAP). This makes the UK a defender of the CAP because, if it disappeared, so would the British rebate.
So the UK focuses its efforts on the cohesion funds that go to the least developed regions. In many countries the EU cohesion policy contributed to more than half of all public investment. In Poland, 52% of all public investment comes from the EU budget. Most beneficiaries of the budget are in central Europe. This is our very own late “Marshall plan”, thanks to which we may at last catch up and right the wrong that we suffered at the 1945 Yalta conference.
A British veto of the budget in November would not decrease EU spending. The treaty foresees a situation in which the budget is not adopted, and this leads to provisional annual budgets. In such a case the level of spending in 2013 would be the basis for the next few years. Under annual budgets, payments for agriculture would increase – hardly a boost to innovation or better spending. And several national rebates would be up for negotiation.
Europe needs the UK, as the UK needs Europe. Much in the union needs amending. But this can only be done through co-operation. We need more British common sense in the EU, but Britain also needs friends. An important test of our friendship is coming up.
Radoslaw Sikorski is Poland’s minister of foreign affairs.