This week saw an interesting and lively debate in the House of Lords on recent developments in the European Union. While Members’ contributions were varied and focused on a range EU issues, I chose to highlight the impact of the Union as a driving force for poverty reduction and peace in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries.
All too often, debates on the EU have centred on the actual material or parochial political benefits of being at the tables of the European Council. Yet such a narrow understanding of the spirit of the Union risks missing the crux of the debate completely. Simply put, the EU question boils down to whether we want to live in isolation as the United Kingdom, or whether we want to live as part of a group of nations that work together – not only in their internal interests but externally too.
Of course, the EU is far from perfect. From an excessive bureaucracy, through the imperfect Lisbon Treaty, to the current Euro crisis, it is clear that there exists a dire need for reform within the EU. But the Union also has its benefits. The single market has propelled trade and has been balanced by many social benefits; the EU has had a global impact on the environment, trade and development; and the EU has played a pivotal role in advancing peace across the continent in the aftermath of World War II and through enlargement to the East. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU earlier this year was a much-needed reminder of just how far we have come. In the areas of Justice and Home Affairs, and the Economy, as well as in the area of External Relations, there is a strong case for pooled sovereignty in today’s world. And that sometimes has to be backed up by laws passed at the European level. The UK Government and others should show more leadership in making that case to the people of Britain, not shy away from it.
The current battle over the EU Budget risks consequences for the Official Development Assistance of EU states. But, whoever is responsible for the current financial crisis and EU overspends, it is not those who live in the poorest parts of Africa, Latin America or Asia, and who currently benefit from the EU aid budget. The UK has made a proposal to freeze the budget, and I sympathise with that view. But if cuts are made proportionately across all budgets, there will of course be an impact on the aid expenditure as well. The President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy recently made an outrageous proposal, suggesting that cuts to the EU aid budget should be disproportionately high in comparison with cuts to other departments, in order to avoid cuts to the subsidies and the waste that goes on in the departments for which he and President Barroso are responsible.
Not only is this morally wrong, it is also illogical. In the UK, every penny that we take out of the EU aid budget will simply have to be re-routed to our own DfID budget. We have committed to the 0.7% international target irrespective of what agencies, departments and organisations such funds are channelled through. Other countries will have to follow suit and do the same thing with their national budgets since the EU spend contributes to national aid and development assistance targets. The only countries to benefit will be those that want to avoid international obligations. And poor people will pay with their lives.
A review of UK aid signals that engaging with the EU on development matters works. DfID and the former Secretary of State, Mr Mitchell, undertook a Multilateral Aid Review in 2011 which, in an objective evaluation that saw funding withdrawn from a number of multilateral organisations, showed that the European Development Fund’s performance was strong in meeting the UK’s aid objectives. In having organisational strengths to use that money effectively, the Fund was considered to be strong, and it was more likely than most to change and reform. It would be a terrible signal if in a year when the G8 comes back to the UK we were leading on a budget initiative that slashes the EU aid budget, depriving the world’s poorest of essential humanitarian assistance and the development investment that helps create growth.
I urge our Government to take a strong stand. Political leadership is not only about tactics. It is not only about trying to get the better of the other parties in relation to a referendum. It must also be about vision: setting out a case for our role in the world and in Europe, working out how the two go together, and understanding how we can then make the best use of them. Now is the time for the Government and the Opposition to be bucking the popular trend of euroscepticism, and leading Britain to a new level of engagement fit for the 21st century.