Three years ago David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition, found some stirring words on Europe. "Today", he said, "European countries need to work together to combat global climate change, to fight global poverty, to boost global economic growth...we will look forward to working with our European partners to make progress on those issues."
As Mario Cuomo said, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. Fast forward to late 2012 and you have to assume that when the prime minister thinks of Europe, lofty verses quickly dry up. A mountain of debt. An impending budget showdown. Few friends on the continent. A hostile press at home. Prosaic in the extreme.
Today, David Cameron meets Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council. The two men might find more in common than they expect. First, Van Rompuy is a poet himself - his published volume of haikus having received a warm reception (though he has evidently failed to impose on EU communique drafters the discipline of the 17-syllable form). More importantly, Cameron and Van Rompuy are both proven champions of the fight against global poverty, by one simple measure - their commitment to the 0.7% aid promise. Van Rompuy ensured Belgium reached the target when he was prime minister. Cameron has repeated his iron commitment to get there in March next year. They are members of an elite and honourable club.
The British prime pinister can burnish those credentials today, while also perhaps recapturing a little of that old optimism for what Europe can do well together. When Van Rompuy asks for what Cameron would like to do to the small slice of the next seven-year EU budget that is earmarked for fighting global poverty and disease, I hope his response will be shorter than a Japanese poet's. In fact, a one-word answer would do: nothing. Keeping that proposal investment intact, and ensuring it is protected from the negotiating storm that is about to hit Europe's budget process, would enable Europe to stand for something bigger than itself and to get life-saving support to some of the poorest people in the world.
The European Parliament yesterday agreed that the European Commission's proposals for development and humanitarian aid - taking just 6% of proposed EU spending - were "the bare minimum". Britain's own Department for International Development has praised the quality and value-for-money of EU aid. But the British negotiating position on the EU budget is undergoing a bout of cognitive dissonance. The UK position on the overall EU budget would shave €200bn off spending from 2014 to 2020. If applied evenly across the various headings, this would translate to a €9 billion cut to aid for the world's poorest. This move would have a devastating effect on millions of lives around the world. It would not be the action of a champion of aid.
The International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, implies this will not happen, saying that development is one of the UK's priority areas within an overall squeezed budget. But without a clear commitment to protect that aid money - technically speaking, the Development Cooperation Instrument and the European Development Fund - anything could happen and it is hard not to fear the worst.
Today is the prime minister's opportunity to put that right. We hope he will stick to the principles he has displayed since his election: defending the aid budget and ensuring it is ever more effective, and not trying to balance the books on the backs of the poorest. The best part is this: making that promise won't cost the British taxpayer a penny. As the UK has already committed to spending 0.7% of national income (and no more) on aid, and as Britain's contribution to EU aid is counted as part of that 0.7% commitment, increasing EU aid will not cost the UK any more. But it will leverage increased contributions from right across Europe as other member states pay their share.
If cuts implied by the UK government's position were to go ahead, 5 million people will not get connected to clean drinking water, over 1 million people will not have proper sanitation and nearly 1 million children will not being vaccinated against measles. Cuts cost lives. The prime minister is a development champion at home. He has yet to show whether he will do so in Europe. He made a promise to the world's poorest. Today he can deliver.
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