Off-Screen Drama

Richard Mayne

  • European Elections and British Politics by David Butler
    Longman, 208 pp, £9.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 582 29528 9
  • Political Change in Europe: The Left and the Future of the Atlantic Alliance edited by Douglas Eden
    Blackwell, 163 pp, £8.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 631 12525 6

You’d think it would be prime-time viewing. A Frenchwoman, a survivor of Hitler’s death camps, helps an ingenious young Dutch Socialist to outwit the Scrooge-like Establishment. Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake. The rank-and-file defy the mighty. Law confronts power. Three Governments risk being taken to court.

All this is part of the story unfolded by Davids Butler and Marquand in their masterly and absorbing analysis. In 1979, preparing the European Community’s budget for the following year, the Brussels Commission tried to curb the outlay on farm support and earmark more money for new industries and jobs. The Governments snubbed the plan: but they soon faced angry opposition. The European Parliament, once merely nominated, had now been elected by 111 million voters; and it fought back. Egged on by its adroit budget expert, Pieter Dankert, it drew up its own alternative plan, restoring what the Governments had cut, demanding control over Community borrowing and lending, and refusing to squander taxpayers’ money on surplus dairy products.

Hopeless? No. The Parliament’s alternative budget could have become law. Italy and the Netherlands backed it, and they needed support from only one other ‘big’ member State. Here was the British Government’s opportunity. By siding with the Parliament, alongside the Dutch and the Italians, it could have slashed farm spending, reduced the milk and butter mountains, created more jobs, and rejigged the Community budget so that Britain paid less and got more back. What happened? Under pressure from Germany, Britain caved in, and the Governments were able to veto the Parliament’s proposal. The Parliament retaliated by throwing out the spending plans put forward by the Governments; and the result was deadlock. Without a 1980 budget, the Community lived for about a year from hand to mouth. Then, as Butler and Marquand record in a rueful footnote, the Parliament at last accepted a budget not very different from what the Governments had wanted all along.

But wait. Since Butler and Marquand wrote, the plot’s thickened. In December 1980, the European Parliament returned to the attack. By a shrewd procedural device, it voted only small changes in the 1981 budget – but a huge supplementary budget for 1980, enabling the Community to spend on regional and employment aid in 1981 most of what the Governments had previously refused. Taken aback, the Governments couldn’t muster a big enough majority to quash the extra spending, and Mme Simone Veil, the Parliament’s President, smartly declared both budgets approved. Belgium, France and Germany then threatened not to pay; and the Commission started legal proceedings against them. They may end up in the dock at the European Court. Future historians of Europe may see the whole story as a constitutional struggle, like royal feuds with the House of Commons in Britain, or federal versus states’ rights in the USA.

In the process, strange things have been happening. The British Government has found itself opposing its own policy. Conservative Members of the European Parliament have found themselves attacking their own government, and even voting on the same side as the Italian Communists. And Labour Members of the Parliament like Mrs Barbara Castle, pledged to oppose any extension of its power, have found themselves extending its influence. Europe’s constitutional battles can make nonsense of national party lines.

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