EU Budget "deserves the highest priority from the leaders of all member states"

Minister for Europe David Lidington talks about what the Prime Minister will discuss at the European Council on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Lidington CBE

Evan Davis, presenter: Well, let’s talk to the Europe Minister, or Minister for Europe, David Lidington, who’s with us in the studio.

David Lidington, Minister of State for Europe: Morning.

ED: Good morning to you. I want to start with a very specific thing, which is the report that the officers of the new headquarters of the EU’s foreign service will be costing €12 million a year to run. Now, that seems quite a, sort of… a lavish office, if you like, at a time of great austerity. Is that, to your knowledge, a correct report and is that something you find appealing?

DL: Well, we haven’t seen the full details yet of exactly what’s proposed. The… what we’re hearing from Baroness Ashton, who runs this service in…

ED: Our rep out there, yeah.

DL: …our British commissioner there, is that the new arrangements, she argues, are going to be significantly less costly than the current ones where you’ve got bits of the commission, bits of the council dealing with foreign relations all in separate offices, separate staffs; ‘let’s bring them together, save money by eliminating duplication’. Now, I’ve been arguing, William Hague has been arguing, very, very strongly in our meetings with counterparts, that Brussels has got to move towards making those savings as soon as possible. That’s what the voters expect to see.

ED: Right. Well, let’s talk about your approach, or the Government’s approach to this. They want a treaty change; isn’t this the time to start saying, ‘whoa, whoa, we want some things out of you as well’?

DL: Well, it’s far from clear that there’s a consensus even within eurozone countries for a treaty change, and Germany is pushing very strongly for this. And I can understand Chancellor Merkel’s concerns about that: there’s a worry about the German Constitutional Court saying that the current interim bailout mechanism is illegal, and Germany, which has been paying to subsidise the more profligate eurozone countries, you know, wants some assurances for the future. I understand where they are coming from, but there’s an argument even within the eurozone about whether a treaty change is the right way forward or not. What David Cameron is going to be focusing on is saying, ‘look, we have these reports in front of us today which are saying the eurozone, and everybody else for that matter, at these times has really got to demonstrate that they’ve got their borrowing and their spending and their budgets under control, because over-borrowing…

ED: Right.

DL: …led the eurozone and Britain into crisis in the first place, therefore discussion about the 2011 budget, discussion about Europe… the European Union spending and overspending is actually central to this debate’.

ED: Well, I mean, I think you will know - and we all know - that among your… in your party in particular, there are a lot of people who take a more… who think that the priority is not just the budget, the priority is getting powers back. Your manifesto said, ‘we’ll work to bring back powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation’. This is your chance to do it.

DL: Well, the coalition programme says that we will, as a Government, re-examine the balance of competences between the European Union and member states. The… I mean, the position today is… I mean, you won’t me Evan to, sort of, go into great detail about the Prime Minister’s negotiating tactics…

ED: No.

DL: …when he’s about to go into a meeting with his fellow…

ED: But he seems quite clear…

DL: …heads of government. What he’s going… what he is going to be focusing on is saying that, whether it’s 2011 or whether it is the more important long-term deal over the European budget, this really is something which deserves the highest priority from the leaders of all member states. And we can’t simply talk about arrangements at the EU level; we’ve got to ensure that every government within Europe and the European institutions take responsibility for getting their own spending under control.

ED: Yeah. I mean, that is, sort of, nice words…

DL: Yeah.

ED: …but to be absolutely clear, it’s the budget which is the priority, not getting powers back. And what you… if I’m reading between the lines of what you’ve just said is that’s because the coalition agreement effectively said ‘no more power to Brussels, no less power to Brussels, we’ll just freeze it where it is’.

DL: Well…

ED: So you would love to be doing it on the other issues, the power issues, but actually, you’re in a coalition, you didn’t win the election to…

DL: Well, the coalition programme says what the coalition programme says, I’ve just described. But we don’t yet have any consensus, even within the eurozone, that there should be treaty change, let alone have any text in front of us. What we’ve been absolutely clear about is were there at any stage to be a proposal for treaty change, we’d certainly look at the small print, and we are not going to sign up to any treaty change which transferred powers from the United Kingdom to Brussels’ institutions.

ED: Well, I… it’s interesting you say that, because there is some… I mean, the working… the taskforce to the European Council, which looked at this whole issue, does talk about changes to strengthen economic governance in the EU and the euro area. Now, that… ‘EU and euro area’ implies it would be a treaty change that did affect not just the eurozone but might have implications for countries in the EU but not in the eurozone.

DL: But, Evan, if you look at the taskforce report - I have my copy in front of me too…

ED: OK, you’ve got it as well…

DL: …then you will see more than once there is a very explicit reference to the United Kingdom being outwith the scope of any sanctions, any penalties.

ED: Right. OK. Can I just ask, do you regret raising expectations on this issue as a party, going around, barnstorming around, talking about the rebate as something that you’d be able to get, talking about freezing the budget when actually you’ve really conceded a 2.9% increase is almost inevitable next year? Talking about getting powers back; it’s not really going to be achieved, is it?

DL: I think that we can achieve much better economy and efficiency within Europe. I find, talking to my ministerial counterparts around the EU, that there is growing worry about the lack of accountability on the part of the European Parliament and other institutions to ordinary voters who are seeing, country by country, public services, welfare payments, public sector salaries squeezed because of financial necessity. And it’s not just in the UK that voters are looking at EU institutions and saying, ‘why aren’t they sharing some of the pain that we’re all having to put up with?’

ED: David Lidington, Minister for Europe, thank you very much indeed.

Updates to this page

Published 28 October 2010