Tory rebel demands on EU budget cannot be met, says Clegg

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 00:00

CONSERVATIVE MPs have given British prime minister David Cameron demands over European Union spending that cannot be met, deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg has said.

In Wednesday night’s vote in the House of Commons, despite days of efforts by Conservative whips, 53 Conservatives, backed by Labour, demanded a cut in real-terms spending by the EU in the seven years from 2014.

Downing Street last night attempted to downplay the significance of the vote but there is little doubt that the result has led to near-despair.

In advance of budget talks between EU leaders in Brussels this month, London has insisted it will not accept a rise above inflation in the EU budget.

Under EU rules Mr Cameron can veto an agreement but that would mean the existing EU budget, plus inflation, would be rolled over for a year.

The difficulties facing Mr Cameron are clear, however, since a deal of any kind on the seven-year budget must be passed by MPs before it can become law.

If Mr Cameron fails to win a cut in the EU’s budget, which is near certain – or achieves a freeze, which is highly unlikely – he faces the politically catastrophic danger that he could lose a Commons vote on any agreement that increases the UK’s contributions.

Furious about Labour’s decision to vote with the rebels – which was orchestrated by shadow chancellor Ed Balls – Mr Clegg said the party had been “dishonest” and “hypocritical”.

“Ed Balls knows only too well, from bitter experience, that there is absolutely no prospect of securing a real-terms cut to the EU budget,” said Mr Clegg.

However, Labour’s move – which bears comparison with its actions in 1992 over the Maastricht treaty – guarantees the EU will be a growing sore between Mr Cameron and Conservative MPs for the rest of the parliament’s life.

Analysing the Commons vote, University of Nottingham academics Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart said: “Europe is a chronic ailment to the Conservative body politic; there is always a summit, a treaty amendment, a budget, to cause the fever to return.

“Tory divisions remain in the memory, Labour opportunism does not,” they said, adding that opinion within the Conservative Party on the EU is “now just between gradations of scepticism, between hard and soft sceptics”, rather than between pro- and anti-EU MPs.

Replying to questions after his speech, Mr Clegg said many in Britain who advocate the repatriation of powers from Brussels “are the same people who want us out of Europe – full stop. For them, no rebalancing of powers will ever be enough.

“So there is no hard border between repatriation and exit because, for these people, repatriation is pulling at a thread – and they want to unravel the whole thing.”