When people ask why I left UK academe for Brussels, I usually say I came here to escape bureaucracy. Belgian universities are hardly free of red tape, but they seem much less bad than the UK, where commercialisation and endless government-monitored performance indices give rise to the bureaucratic version of the categorical imperative: that committees be treated never merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Still, the myth persists, and nowhere more so than in Britain, that Brussels as the EU capital pullulates with Eurocrats living high on the hog.
And so David Cameron arrived here this week charged, like all British prime ministers, with putting the Euro hydra to the sword. Lots have been drawn with François Hollande, and the French and UK leaders have measured out their ten paces and taken aim, the casus belli being, as usual, the UK’s rebate against contributions to the Common Agricultural Policy. France is the principal contributor to the rebate. Its rationale was that France benefited disproportionately from the CAP, since farming contributes far more to GDP there than in the UK. In the heyday of the wine lagoon and the butter gorge one could fairly ask why British taxes should fund a bung to Burgundian cornichon-growers.
EU agricultural budgets have undeniably seen some notable scams, such as the Bulgarian gangster Mario Nikolov’s €7 million fleecing of Sapard, the EU fund for rural development in east European accession countries, by claiming a tax break on used meat-processing machines. Nor is this an isolated case, with the double-accounting Eurostat scandal in 2003 and the venality rife in the Santer Commission during the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Court of Auditors has now failed to sign off EU accounts for 18 years running. All this, together with the patent lack of transparency, fuels the idea that the Union’s a wheeze to keep Belgians in waffles.
The myth that the rebate enshrines Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism suits both French and British camps. Hollande can hold out against a cap on the farm budget; Cameron can seem to hang tough over the rebate while omitting to mention that it does little more than keep the ratio between Britain’s contribution and its funding roughly comparable to the EU’s other G8 economies (they’re all net contributors). His right flank is still exposed, however, as UKIP’s current surge shows: now that Cameron’s signalled there will be a referendum on the EU after the next general election, he has to find a way of making good on that pledge, and so spiking UKIP’s wheel, without opening the gate to a UK exit.
For now, it’s irresistibly tempting for visiting UK PMs to swat the nearest cardboard man, of whom Herman van Rompuy does a passable impersonation. In the UK public sphere, the urban myth of eurocrats living in the lap of Beneluxury continues to prosper. Certainly EU functionaries cream off some irksome perks, like fully funded private schooling for their offspring, and splurge sizeable sums in Brussels’ Schumann quarter on building various Eurofollies. But, as Cameron knows, the EU administration tab is not that big (about 7 per cent of the total), and indeed the overall budget comes in at only €130 billion, around half the size of the public sector in the Netherlands alone.
But the public debate is not really conditioned by data – any more than Tea Party diatribes in the US against ‘big government’ pay much heed to the fact that half the federal budget goes on defence, farm subsidies and keeping two million people in prison. It’s more about bashing Johnny Foreigner, re-enacting yet again the battle fought near here a couple of hundred years ago. On that occasion our boys, led by the inevitable old Etonian, sent Boney packing, helped by a late German intervention, which has been repeated at the current summit. Myth has it that Wellington said Waterloo was won on Eton’s playing fields. But, as the duke himself said when the myth was repeated back to him, the ‘scum of the earth’ were led by one whose schoolboy sport was confined to fist fights in the woods.