Thursday, April 28, 2005

The consensus under pressure

A large, detached, modern house in a delightful rural area, with stunning views, the whole area oozing money - and what did the householder consider the major issue of the election, the one thing that would decide his vote? "Europe", he said, "who is going to get us out of Europe?"

He was by no means the only one, and their reasons were often different. My man in the posh house was incensed by the corruption and the lack of democracy, but another man told me – quite unsolicited – how his son and his friends has been stopped from trail-bike riding on the land of a friendly farmer as the new CAP regulations prohibited farmers from allowing their land to be used for such purposes if they were to qualify for the single farm payment.

Yet, as always, the only references to the EU in the media still seem to be the occasional commentator bemoaning the fact that "Europe" is not featuring as an issue in the general election, while the politicos continue with their own agendas.

And, of course, so does the EU. The commission yesterday, perhaps conscious of the fact that it would attract very little publicity in the UK, set out its proposals for next year's budget, suggesting that €112.6 billion would do nicely – an increase of six percent on last year, all in the interests of promoting "economic growth and job creation."

If approved, Britain will find itself paying over €15 billion, something better than £10 billion. In an election where the Conservatives are making a big deal over £4 billion in various tax cuts, it does seem surreal that the EU can put in its bill and the issue will not even rate a mention in the UK mainstream media.

And this is the last EU budget under current rules. The battle is on for the approval of the 2007-2013 budgets, where the EU will have its hand out for even more – yet still this does not feature in the general election campaign.

However, according to The Times today, it is certainly featuring in the referendum campaign in The Netherlands. There, the increasing resentment at having to pay a disproportionately high share of the EU’s rising costs, combined with the bureaucracy and fears of losing their national identity, are all driving the Dutch into the "nee" camp.

Above all, says The Times, the country is reacting to years of stifling liberal consensus. There is a backlash against the assumptions that The Hague should pay generously for other Europeans, take a lead in development aid or make concessions to a club dominated by larger members determined to have their own way. The Dutch want to concentrate on priorities at home. What they dislike is not the idea of a constitution, but the accretion of more power to an unaccountable Brussels.

This could so easily be the UK but, for the moment, the "liberal consensus" is holding. But, if the voices on the doorstep are any guide, it will not do so for much longer. Slowly, the people of Britain are stirring.

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