Friday, January 18, 2008

The contagion spreads

It started so simply, with a patsy question from Europhiliac Lord Dykes in the House of Lords yesterday, who asked when the government next intends to discuss the Galileo Project with representatives from the new Slovenian presidency of the European Union Council of Ministers.

Answering for the government was Labour apparatchik Lord Bassam of Brighton (pictured, left), which brought an intervention from UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch (pictured below right). He asked whether the noble Lord could "give the amount that has been raided from the agricultural budget to meet the cost of this project, against the Government's wishes?"

Parliamentary language is at its finest in the Lords, but the message from Bassam was clear enough: "… I cannot agree with the noble Lord when he asserts that there has been a raid on the agricultural budget to pay for it." In words, there has been no "raid" on the agriculture budget. Pearson was talking rubbish. Continued Bassam, "I understand that, although there have been disagreements and discussions about the budgeting process, there now is agreement and that a sensible way forward has been provided."

The only problem is that Bassam was, in parliamentary terms, "misleading" the House. Outside the hallowed portals, this can be expressed in more direct terms. He was lying through his teeth.

What is troubling is that Bassam was not only lying to Pearson, but his lie is so transparent. If nothing else, the EU does leave a clear paper trail of its activities and the documents on the current round of Galileo go back to the press release following the Transport Council meeting on 3 December last year, and the council conclusions, themselves.

Then there are the commission proposals which start with the original communication, the background staff document and then the final amended commission proposal of 19 September 2007, on which the council conclusion was based.

Formally referenced as COM(2007) 535 final, this was the Amended proposal for "a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the further implementation of the European satellite radionavigation programmes (EGNOS and Galileo)" and it proposed to increase the Galileo budget by an additional €2,100 million. As to the source, the document stated, "The funds are provided from unused margins in headings 2 and 5 for 2007 and 2008."

For those unaccustomed to "commission-speak" Heading 2 is the formal EU budget heading which "includes the common agricultural and fisheries policies, rural development and environmental measures, in particular Natura 2000." Heading 5 covers administrative expenditure for all institutions, pensions and the European Schools.

There is no need for a translation though. In a widely reported press briefing on 19 September, transport commissioner Jacques Barrot told reporters that "most of the money" needed to fund Galileo "could be found from the EU's agricultural budgets for 2007 and 2008 and the rest from funds earmarked for running the European Union institutions" – i.e., Headings 2 and 5.

"These margins," said Barrot, "are usable without the least diminution of the programmes concerned". For example, he added, a rise in world agricultural prices was reducing levels of subsidies paid to farmers.

This was reported by The Times, the BBC and then subsequently in the House of Commons Transport Committee report on 7 November 2007.

How appropriate it is, though, that when challenged about the funding of a project that is built on a foundation of lies, Lord Bassam should in turn lie to the House of Lords. At the very least, however, he owes an apology to Lord Pearson, the House – and to the nation.


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