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A curious choice of words

Posted by Richard Monday, May 23, 2005

The latest instalment in the "battle for the rebate" is given coverage in most of the quality newspapers today (although, strangely, not the Europhile Independent), marking Straw’s arrival in Brussels for a foreign ministers' meeting on the vexed subject of the EU budget.

But no headline is more curious than that offered by The Scotsman, which offers: "Straw holds EU to ransom over plans to scrap Britain's 'fair' £3bn rebate".

Regular readers of this Blog will readily attest to some significant gaps in my education (fortunately, for the large part, filled by my gifted co-editor) but I do not think I am wrong in my understanding of the word "ransom".

As far as I am aware, this is a sum of money demanded by thieves (robbers, brigands, or whatever – sometimes governments, but hey! What's the difference?) for the return of an illegally held person or property.

One can forget the "illegal" bit but, in the context of the Scotsman's headline story, we have a situation where the UK is in receipt of an annual rebate, as an adjustment for a distorted budgetary payment system which would otherwise require of us to pay a disproportionate contribution to the EU.

The other member states are now demanding that we give up all or part of that rebate, in return for… er… exactly nothing. That, in my opinion – which can rarely be described as "humble" – is hardly a ransom situation, especially when be have a copper-bottomed veto, which means that Straw can tell the "colleagues" to go take a running jump.

That reality is better reflected in the Telegraph, which has: "Chancellor talks tough over threat to EU rebate", citing Brown who said yesterday that the Government "would not hesitate" to veto the next EU budget to defend Britain's multi-billion pound rebate. This is the message being delivered by Jack Straw in Brussels today.

What is curious about this is Straw's choice of words, retailed in The Times today, which quoted him on his on arrival in Brussels. There, he said: "The rebate was justified in 1984 when it was agreed. It is fully justified today and we will not hesitate to use our veto if that is necessary. Indeed, it is only the fact that we have a veto that gives a proper bargaining power to the UK."

Those with a memory span slightly longer than a goldfish will instantly recall the Foreign Office "myth rebuttal" exercise, placed on its website on February, where it spoke up in support of Qualified Majority Voting, stating: "Majority Voting helps Britain get what it wants".

"Removing national vetoes," said the Foreign Office, "helps the UK push reform in Europe. For example, without Qualified Majority Voting we could not have secured important reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy or the liberalisation of European energy markets. We are rarely outvoted."

Ho, ho, ho! And is QMV is so helpful in helping Britain get what it wants, why is not Mr Straw pushing for QMV on the budget rebate? Why does a veto give us a "proper bargaining power" on the budget, but not on other matters of national interest? Answers on a postcard please…

And there is one final curiosity. Barroso – amongst others - is claiming that it is only fair that Britain should pay more, as it is a much more wealthy country than it was when Thatcher negotiated the rebate back in 1984. But, since then, the overall contribution is calculated as a proportion of the Gross National Income (GNI), currently fixed at a maximum of one percent.

On this basis, since Britain is a wealthy country, it is automatically paying more than it otherwise would have. Barroso's argument is specious. But then, you knew that, didn't you?