DomSez: Rebate Debate

[This post is a syndication of my latest Ruberyvillage DomSez column]

As my Editor will tell you, I’ve been trying to avoid writing about the EU for fear of losing my sanity. Yet the news has rarely been more focused about one issue, and it stretches much further than a simple wrangle over budgets.

Europe has never been so divided. Not just leaders against leaders, but people against their own governments. In France and the Netherlands, they rejected a constitution seen by many as “too English, too free market.” At the same time, anti-EU sentiment in Britain continues to see Brussels as an expensive, interfering burden that regulates too much.

At one time, we might have seen this as a struggle between the left and the right, the capitalists and the socialists, fighting about the size of the State and how far to tax people to pay for expensive social structures. Except, it isn’t. In my eyes it’s actually a very different fight, being waged by the old colonial powers. And to make this point, I turn to Bob Geldof.

20 years ago, Live Aid brought our attention to the plight of Africa. (It actually makes me uncomfortable to type this, because it can portray Africa as some poor and needy continent, filled with famine and orphaned children alone.) As the name suggests, Live Aid wanted the West to donate. Money would solve the problem, buy food, build homes, right the wrongs of history.

Of course this was never going to accomplish much in the long term, although it’s some comfort that increased aid is now accepted by politicians, at least in rhetoric, as far wide as Gordon Brown and George Bush. The G8 summit, if it lives up to its promise, will cancel debt, increase aid and put pressure on governments to reform. Who knows how successful it will be, but the intentions are there. And therefore the protesters that will decent on the summit are in the wrong place entirely.

The EU is, of course, the other piece of the puzzle. The Common Agricultural Policy is rotten to the core. It denies Africa the ability to become economically independent, by putting up trade barriers that tilts the advantage towards farmers in Europe. It may preserve the French countryside, but quite apart from being economically unstable, it’s immoral.

I was slightly shocked at the beginning of this row to see that over 40% of the EU’s budget went on the CAP. The British rebate is so astoundingly insignificant compared to this it’s not even worth mentioning. How can any government justify spending that much of its income on propping up one otherwise unsustainable sector? It couldn’t be done even if we were talking about health or education, but this is agriculture for goodness sake!

Fortunately, the system will destroy itself over time. The economies of France and Germany are an indicator of what will befall any government that won’t play by the economic rules provided. The trouble is, we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting the Union collapse. We need a united Europe to deal with the world’s pressing problems, and I’ll risk looking obsessed by shouting “environment!” very loudly here.

But there are other reasons for trying as hard as we can to steer the EU into a new, sustainable dimension. If we don’t reform the area where we do most of our trade, we’ll find ourselves stumped when competing with China. If we don’t stop the CAP, our promises at G8, and Live 8, are empty words. And if we don’t reform now, we won’t be able to build in what Tony Blair sweetly describes as Europe’s “social dimension” which equates to “nice things the government can pay for.”

And after we’ve saved the world, then maybe we can think about that whole rebate thing. Just in case that gets lost in translation, my tongue was in my cheek

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