Eurosceptic Tory demands for EU budget cut 'impractical'

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

DEMANDS BY Conservative MPs, supported by the Labour Party, for a reduction in the European Union’s budget are “completely impractical”, a top Conservative minister has said.

The declaration by Ken Clarke, one of the few pro-EU Conservatives, comes just days after a major rebellion by more than 50 Tory backbenchers in a Commons vote on the EU.

The Eurosceptic Tories had teamed up with Labour around a position “which is completely impractical and cannot be achieved”, said Mr Clarke, now minister without portfolio.

Prime Minister David Cameron, he said, had made it clear that he wanted a freeze in the seven-year EU budget from 2014 “at a time of economic stringency. You obviously cannot have the European budget rising when everybody is having, for the public interest, to cut back public spending.”

Despite a belief that the Conservatives are set for yet another catastrophic division on the EU, Mr Clarke said Wednesday’s vote “toughens up” Mr Cameron’s strong negotiating position.

Downplaying talk of rift, he continued: “When we want to get away from the day-to-day events of politics we all move on to Europe and get frightfully, frightfully excited.”

Labour MP Chris Leslie said Mr Cameron’s talk of threatening “a veto before negotiations have even begun is ludicrous and a sign of weakness”.

Senior government figures, said Mr Leslie, are taking different positions: “The divisions in this government are growing by the day.”

Meanwhile, British think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research now argues that British voters should face an “in/out” EU membership referendum.

Voters would have to be given the option of quitting the bloc if the referendum is to be politically effective, said the institute, which receives nearly a €1 million in funding from Brussels.

The European Union Act 2011 passed by the Houses of Parliaments – which prevents additional powers being passed to the EU without a referendum – makes it certain that a poll of some kind will eventually have to be held, said the institute’s Will Straw.

To be effective, a referendum would have to be decisive, ending debate about the UK’s future in the EU which means that the only choices on offer should be: in, or out. Anything broader would leave more questions asked than answered, he said.

No one in the UK younger than 54 has had the chance to vote on EU membership. In 1975, 67.2 per cent of those who voted in the referendum backed membership. Today, a near-identical number tell pollsters they now want a straight question on the issue.

Meanwhile, a close ally of Labour leader Ed Miliband, Lord Stewart Wood, has rejected charges that Labour is now trying to coax Eurosceptic voters.

“It is wrong because it rests on a rather lazy assumption; one most often made by those hostile to Britain’s membership of the EU: that opposing ever-increasing budgets is the definition of Euroscepticism. It is not,” he said.

European Union spending, he added, can be reformed and made subject to stricter disciplines, limiting “the distorting effects” of the Common Agricultural Policy and reducing structural fund “clientelism”.