My Lords, the UK’s net contributions to the European Union have indeed increased over recent years. This is mainly the result of unacceptable increases in the annual EU budget and to changes to the calculation of the UK abatement, agreed by the previous Administration. This Government’s top priority is budgetary restraint, thereby ensuring that the EU budget contributes to domestic fiscal consolidation.
I thank the Minister for his considered reply. Does he appreciate that while we practise austerity here in the UK, our net contribution to the EU has doubled since 2006 to over £10 billion a year? The UK has to borrow every penny of it from others, thus increasing our national indebtedness. As our Government were outvoted in their attempt to reduce the 2013 budget, will the Minister strive to get a better deal in the forthcoming negotiations, not least by withholding our £5 billion a year contribution to the structural funds? If invested here in our infrastructure, it would help to create over 250,000 badly-needed jobs.
My Lords, as the House is aware, we are coming up to the negotiations of the multi-year financial perspective. That agreement requires unanimity of member states. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear in a statement, jointly with other European colleagues, that the maximum acceptable expenditure increase through that period is a real freeze in payments. That continues to be the Government’s position. As for structural funds, we cannot just opt out of any particular area of EU expenditure, although I agree that in the area of structural and cohesion funds, it is absurd that so much money is recycled from wealthy member states back into other wealthy regions of Europe. That is one of the many issues that need to be addressed.
My Lords, to put this question into everyday perspective, do the Government accept that £10 billion per annum equates to the annual salaries of 91,320 nurses being thrown away down the Brussels drain—or policemen, soldiers, or any other public servants at £30,000 per annum? Does this Question not remind us that there is no such thing as EU aid to the United Kingdom? For every pound that Brussels sends us, we have sent them £2.20.
My Lords, the UK benefits from its membership of the EU. The UK should make a proper contribution to the net EU budget, but we have to see that the completely unacceptable proposals from the European Commission for the next multi-year period are reined back. The Commission’s proposals, as opposed to a real freeze, would mean an increased UK contribution of £10 billion, or £1.4 billion a year. That is indeed many nurses, policemen and other front-line public servants.
My Lords, the Minister said that the UK benefited from membership of the EU, and I think that many people will be glad to hear him say that. However, will he confirm that it is not just the rich regions of Europe that benefit from the structural funds? In fact, Wales, with the lowest GVA per head of any country or region in the UK, gets considerable benefit. If there were to be changes in this direction, can he give a guarantee that those sums will still come to Wales?
My Lords, of course we agree that the European budget needs to be tightly controlled and, if possible, redirected towards jobs and growth. We are not too confident that this Government will produce the same priorities. However, can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will be calling on his many friends among the leaders in Europe in this negotiation?
What I can confirm is that the UK’s priorities for expenditure include the following: substantial cuts to the common agricultural policy. However, I agree with the noble Lord that priorities for the UK include growth and competitiveness, climate change and external action. I am not going to speculate on how the negotiations will play out.
Will my noble friend confirm that, in the absence of any compromise, what is being asked for by the European Commission is a 6.8% increase in the budget? Is this not an extraordinarily high figure which shows an unbelievable insensitivity to the problems that Governments are facing across the EU as they try to rein back their deficits?