Should social democrats (like myself) be quietly thanking David Cameron for delivering us an early Christmas gift by blocking the passage of a bloated and wasteful EU budget? Not quite, if Santa Cam has his way this gift will be a Trojan Horse. Cameron would much rather see the EU crippled in its federalist ambitions, and certainly in any Social Democratic ambitions it may have than become a more legitimate and strengthened global force. Ideally for the Tories the EU would reduced to a free-trading zone with some responsibilities for halting illegal immigration. If he has to partner with more integrationist minded politicians like Merkel to do it then so be it. At least she's on board with the austerity programme, for the rest of Europe, if not Germany.
Many in the UK of course agree, even Ed Milliband (rather cynically I think) has demanded that Cameron play a firm hand in trying to reform the EU and get the best deal for Britain.
It's a good thing that European Social Democrats are no longer blanket apologists for an EU that is in large part run by neo-liberals and works against the Social Democratic goals (think Merkel's fiscal pact) that I think are at the heart of the European Dream (a sustainable high quality of life for all Europeans). But we should also remember that our goals are simply not attainable without the heft of a strong Europe backing them up.
For example, if great organizations like UK Uncut really want to get multinationals to pay a fair amount of tax, they'll have to be able to pursue them across borders - why is Ikea a registered charity in the Netherlands? And for that they'll need democratic institutions that have transnational authority and reach.
The EU has the potential to be a real power for fairness and social justice. We'll have to fight to make it that way, but the possibility is there. And being critical doesn't mean blocking the budget, or short-changing areas and projects that are genuinely important to the future of the continent. But it does mean having a very serious look at where the money goes and where we'd like to see it go.
In that spirit, I'll be writing a social democratic wish list for the EU budget negotiations recommencing in January. I'll try to look at all of the big chunks of the budget: Cohesion, Agriculture, Competitiveness, Foreign affairs and Development, and Administration. In doing so I'll also be trying to set out some idea of what I think a Social Democratic Europe might look like. I have no particular expertise to do this, just a desire to support the European project. I welcome your input.
Let's start with the biggest populist cheer getter (with the Common Agricultural Policy running a close second): Administration
Those Brussels fat cats want to keep raising their already bloated salaries while demanding that the rest of us take cuts across the board, it stinks!
Well, yes and no. Not all EU salaries are stratospheric, and cuts are being made. Besides, whine Barroso (European Commission President) and van Rompuy (European Council President), administration is just 6% of the budget, a measly €62.6 billion! The European Commission would also have us know that most tales about waste, fraud and bloated salaries are myths. Much of that may be true, but appearances do matter, especially for an EU undergoing a potentially fatal legitimacy crisis! If the European Commission is going to suggest slashing civil service pay and social services in the member states, EU institutions will have to bite the bullet and take some of their own medicine - especially at the high end of the pay scale, where political decisions are made and salaries are very big.
A great place to start would be the €300,000 (plus living expenses) that Van Rompuy and Barroso each earn. Barroso also gets a €50,000/year entertainment budget. I'm sorry if he has to pay people to hang out with him, but that's not the taxpayers' problem!
Their positions are political not technical, and frankly they're both rubbish at their jobs. Van Rompuy (aka the 'Grey Mouse', no really) is supposed to be the face of the EU on the world stage and a great backroom negotiator. He's neither. Barroso is confident that austerity is starting to work in Greece. So confident that the Commission doesn't think its necessary for unemployed Greeks to have health insurance. I have about zero confidence in him.
Why are they there? Because the member states who really run the show (more on that later) know that they can count of these neo-liberal lap dogs to do their bidding. Yes, surprise surprise it's the member states that make Europe what it is and are responsible for the vast vast majority of waste and pork, and then turn around and blame the EU institutions when it suits them domestically.
I say cut both their salaries to a symbolic €1 plus living expenses! If they love Europe as much as they say they do, they'll be proud to do it. Besides, I doubt they've touched much of their pay these past years, what with taxpayers wining, dining, housing and probably clothing them (in addition to paying their salaries).
A much bigger savings of around €200 million/year could be had by stopping the monthly circus that is the European Parliament's jaunt to Strasbourg for the general assembly. This French ego trip is a scandal. It serves no purpose other than to assuage French insecurities about being at the heart of Europe. Hollande should do the right thing and call time on this farce. Sadly he won't. Public pressure is needed (sign the petition).
These are not huge things fiscally speaking, but their symbolic value is greater than their numerical, they show that 'Brussels' is not a bubble in the clouds, but has some understanding of the financial pressures many Europeans are under. There are a lot of other things that could be done to give the impression that EU leaders, technocrats and MEPs understand what's happening on the ground. These wouldn't lessen the strength of the Union, they are a step toward restoring its legitimacy!