This Blog will feature opinions on European affairs by members of the Centre for European Politics. Comments are welcome in English.

Business for Britain publishes inaccurate figures on the VAT contribution to the EU budget

BfB, one of the Eurosceptic campaign groups, is running with a story that “UK pays nearly a fifth of all VAT that goes into the EU budget”. Actually the UK pays 13.9% of the EU’s VAT contribution but accounts for 14.4% of the EU’s gross national income (GNI). In other words, the VAT contribution paid by the UK is marginally lower than what we might expect for its economic size.

Looking at the EU’s most recent published annual financial figures, which are from 2013 [the figures for 2014 still need to be audited], we see that on the tab for 2013, the total VAT resource for the EU (box G72) was €14,019 million and that from the UK (box AI72) was €2,527 million – or 18%. This does not take into account the UK rebate, which is calculated on the basis of the UK’s VAT and GNI percentage contributions.

The UK rebate in 2013 (AI74) was €4,329 million, of which 13.47% or €583 million was discounted from the VAT contribution. The real VAT contribution was therefore €1,944 million out of €14,019 million or 13.9%, some way below “nearly a fifth” and very reasonable when we consider that the UK accounts for 14.4% of the EU’s economy.

In its paper, BfB omits to note that the VAT precept is tiny and worth just 0.3% of VAT and that the EU budget itself is likewise tiny and worth just 1% of GDP or 2% of total public spending. It is time for a more open debate about the future of the EU budget.


Posted on Wednesday, May 27, 2015 at 10:31AM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | Comments2 Comments

The EU membership referendum awaits us

It is Europe Day, and I am writing this in Britain, where a government has just been elected promising to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Those of us who believe in the merits of Europe need to find a way to help David Cameron achieve a “yes” vote in the referendum even if our politics are the diametric opposite of his.

This means being very clear about the advantages that the European Union has brought for all of us – and this should go beyond the familiar shopping list of common standards in a single market or the enhanced rights of consumers such as the lowering of mobile phone roaming charges. Although positive, these details will not inspire. Let us remember that the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for being the cause of peace in Europe since its first incarnation in 1951. Ah, reply the sceptics, it was NATO and mutually ensured destruction that kept the peace, not the trading agreements of the European integration. But what the sceptics haven’t thought of is that the European Union’s institutions and agreements guarantee a stability between member states that prevents the kind of descent into chaos that Europe experienced in the 1930s or the summer of 1914. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash led to an economic crisis that the democratic Germany of the Weimar Republic could not withstand, given the costs of World War I and reparations. In 1929-1933, there was no European Union or other international institution with solidarity at its core that could step in to rescue the German economy. The result was a totalitarian regime that produced a nightmare for my grandparents’ generation.

Compared to the events of 1929 to 1933, the response of the European Union to the crash of 2008 has shown the value of European unity in salvaging, at considerable cost, the economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus and preventing a reversion to all the instability of authoritarianism. Given the rise of the populist far-right across Europe, of which UKIP is an expression, salvaging the economies of Europe and protecting ourselves from authoritarianism is a work in progress that has to be finished.

To succeed, the “yes” campaign for continuing British membership must be decentralized; indeed it will need to run as multiple “yes” campaigns, given the very different sorts of voters that have to be convinced in order to win: skilled and unskilled working people, those in precarious employment, small and medium entrepreneurs, farmers, public sector workers – across different parts of the country and through different media. If David Cameron talks only the language of de-regulation to the Left, we shall fail to win a “yes” vote. Let Cameron talk to the CBI and small businesses. The multiple Left(s), including the trades unions, the professional apparatus of the Labour Party, community  or environmental activists, Greens, and Welsh and Scottish nationalists will each need to run their own campaigns. Diverse “yes” campaigns may have to be off-message and in mutual contradiction.

The Scottish unionist campaign won the independence referendum using fear and fear will have to be part of the mix in the EU membership campaign(s). But the “yes” sides will also have to borrow the techniques of the Scottish pro-independence campaign in social media, spontaneity, and inspiration, particularly for young and first-time voters for whom the future matters. One of the failures of previous pro-European campaigns during the time of Tony Blair was their uninspiring centralization, control, and use only of boring economic arguments like lower roaming charges. British exit from the European Union would be very costly and these costs, notably falling employment due to disinvestment, need to be communicated. The tasks then of the “yes” campaigns must be to inspire but also to warn of the risks of exit to the British economy and to Britain’s status as an open and welcoming society.


Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015 at 04:50PM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | CommentsPost a Comment

Britain at the Polls 2015: some personal reflections on an eventful night from Dr Nicholas Allen

Britain at the Polls 2015: some personal reflections on an eventful night - Dr Nicholas Allen

The 2015 General Election was the most unpredictable and eventful that I can remember.  Several colleagues and I followed the unfolding drama of the night in the company of over fifty Royal Holloway students.  We knew that something was up once the exit polls were published.  By the early hours of the morning, it was clear that the outcome was going to be very different from that which everyone had envisaged.

We saw Scotland ‘yellow-washed’ as the Scottish National Party won all but three of the seats north of the border.  We saw the Liberal Democrats reduced to a rump of eight MPs.  We saw many leading figures in British politics lose their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy.  We saw Nigel Farage fail to win in South Thanet. And we saw the return to Downing Street of David Cameron, this time at the head of majority Conservative government.  To coin a phrase, very few people saw that coming.

So much can be written about the results, and a great deal will be written in the coming months.  For the time being, several issues stand out for me, many of which relate to the mechanics of Britain’s curious voting system.

First, there was no dramatic increase in turnout (see Figure 1). Although this was a very close election, and although there were big choices at stake, the number of people who thought it worth voting did not shoot up.  It increased by one point to 66.1%.  Admittedly, this was the highest turnout since 1997, and perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies. However, politicians of all parties should be worried. 

Compounding this reason to be worried is a second issue: the further fragmentation of the party system and the associated decline in the governing party’s share of the vote.  In 2015, the two major parties won barely two-thirds of the popular vote.  The Conservatives won their small majority on 36.9% of the vote.  If this was David Cameron’s sweetest victory, he’s clearly never tasted real electoral sugar.  Yet this small share of the vote was also won on a relatively low turnout. Since 1945 there has been a long downward trend in the ‘legitimacy’ of British governments, as defined by their share of the potential vote, which includes all eligible voters and not just those who did cast a ballot (see Figure 1).  Measured in this way, the Conservatives’ mandate (24.4% of all voters) is the third weakest since 1945.  Only Labour in 2001 (24.2%) and 2005 (21.6%) had a lower share of the potential vote.

Thirdly, of course, we saw the further uncoupling of Scotland’s voting behaviour and party system from the rest of the UK’s.  Half of Scottish voters plumped for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for independence.  The party won 56 out of 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats with one MP apiece.  These results will place further strains on the United Kingdom.  It is quite conceivable that the SNP will press for a second referendum after next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, and it is also conceivable that Scotland will be independent in a decade.

Fourthly, the SNP are now comfortably the third largest parliamentary party, but they secured this influence on less than 1.5 million votes.  Britain’s first-past-the-post or single-member-simple-plurality voting system rewards parties that concentrate their support.  The SNP concentrates its support in Scotland.  Other parties, notably the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens spread their very substantial support much more thinly.  UKIP won nearly 4 million votes across the UK, the Greens over 1 million. Their rewards were just one MP each.  A strictly proportional voting system would have given them about 80 and 25 MPs respectively. 

Voting reform is almost certainly not on the Conservative government’s agenda, but it should be.  And some kind of German-style mixed-member voting system, which delivers a very high degree of proportionality (subject to a threshold) and maintains the tradition of a constituency MP, would be best. 

On the one hand, such a system would help to limit the distinctiveness of Scotland from the rest of the UK, and it may reduce the prospects of independence since all unionist parties would pick up a decent number of seats.  The Conservative and Unionist Party, if it still believes in the Union, should take note.  On the other hand, the voting system, it would help future governments govern for the whole country.  The present voting system is manifestly unable to translate Britons’ multi-party preferences into Westminster representation.  If Cameron wants to govern in the interests of ‘One Nation’, he should think about the 5 million Green and UKIP voters who are represented by just two MPs between them.

Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015 at 01:23PM by Registered CommenterDr Alister Miskimmon | CommentsPost a Comment

Strategic Narratives of Identity international symposium | University of Canterbury @UCNZ 

The University of Canterburyin New Zealand this week plays host to a major international symposium based upon the Strategic Narratives approach to international relations advanced by Alister Miskimmon, Ben O'Loughlin and Laura Roselle. The approach helps to explain how states and other actors in international affairs project and contest narratives about the past, present and future of international relations in order to shape the behaviour of others and steer global order - and history itself - in a certain direction. Strategic narrative research involves researching the formation, projection and reception of narratives in local and global media ecologies. Speakers at this symposium will address that most difficult of questions: how do audiences receive, interpret and respond to narratives of global order and identity?

Miskimmon and O'Loughlin will provide two keynote addresses, and the event features important speakers from China and Ukraine. 

A full programme for the event can be downloaded here

If you are in the area and wish to join, please RSVP to Gabriel Weibl for catering purposes.

  • Date: Friday 27 February 2015, 9:00AM to 5:00PM
  • Location: Undercroft Seminar Room 101, Puaka-James Hight building, Ilam Campus
Posted on Sunday, February 22, 2015 at 10:08PM by Registered CommenterDr Alister Miskimmon | Comments Off

British-German-EU relations: From a slippery path to going downhill?  

Comment by Dr Anja Jakobi
Since this week end, the German weekly news magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ reports about growing tensions among British and German EU politics, a report that is today discussed widely in the British media. The most important aspect in the Spiegel report is that German chancellor Merkel seems to develop first strategies regarding a possible UK exit. She does not ‘fear it’ as some English-speaking commentators translated the German phrase literally. Quite the contrary is her statement meant to show that she accepts the ‘Brexit’ as a price for Europe to pay, if Cameron insists on changing the EU treaties the way he seemed to suggest in recent weeks – foremost targeted at his idea of restricting the freedom of movement by setting a threshold on the numbers of EU migrants to Britain. A ‘point of no return’ mentioned is that the British ideas on restricting free movement seem far unrealistic to the German government. From the German perspective, Britain seems to embark on political ideas that will never find the necessary support among its European neighbours. If this course of action is sustained, rather than trying to accommodate this British position by searching for compromise, Merkel considers devoting German political and financial resources to other topics of European interest. But while Germany might be the most outspoken EU member, other countries are not more willing to align to the British version of Europe.  
The statement marks a turning point. Merkel had been a repeated supporter of British ideas, most lately related to the benefit systems in the EU, as this is an issue that also causes tensions in Germany, where benefits to migrants are high, too. Her distancing from the UK is therefore remarkable and likely to remain for a while. Also, her statement reflects less a staking for a better negotiation position in upcoming talks, nor an ultimatum on Britain. It is worth looking at the different negotiating positions here: As it is foremost Britain that tries to make other EU countries agreeing on comprehensive EU reforms, not otherwise, the German position and those of other countries are already quite strong. If they – hypothetically – would do nothing, Britain would still not be able to change the EU treaties, so it is important to have allies for the British side if it wants to reform the EU.
Far from being only focussed on this single issue, however, the Merkel statement also means that Germany starts making publicly observable moves away from Britain. Following the media reports over the last weeks in Germany, there has been increasing irritation over British politics and perceptions. Many parts of the German public would not perceive the UK as helpful in reforming Europe, but as a country eager to do ‘cherry-picking’. This resentment against perceived British ‘special treatment’ is a growing concern in parts of the German public that has the, not necessarily fully correct, perception that Germany contributes already much more to the working and financing of the EU than others do. We know this perception problem from psychology: Research has shown that in group tasks – and the EU is a gigantic group exercise – individuals tend to think that they themselves delivered a bit more than the others, independent on what their contribution actually was. In politics among states, however, this perception can have drastic consequences for the cooperation of nations.
Merkel’s statement, delivered only a short time after Barroso’s open critique of the UK government, sheds light on the fact that the relations of the UK to Germany and other EU countries are on a very slippery path. Given the general pro-European sentiment in its population, Merkel will have problems in explaining concessions to the British to her German voters, if these concessions cannot be presented as serving a common good in Europe. Even more so, Cameron’s latest political moves in Europe – from being surprised and outraged at a bill that his administration knew for weeks, to the current aim to restrict freedom of movement – has left many pro-British allies deeply alienated. From the European perspective, there seems indeed need for reform, and the British perspective has been perceived to be a valuable one for most of the time. The main means for sustained engagement and prospect of EU reform is therefore not to give up British interests or positions. Instead, more political skills and diplomatic ties are needed to find common ground on what seems doable in an existing multilateral treaty - on which the EU is based and which had been negotiated with and signed by the British - and what is not. The fact that Merkel let the press report her concerns about the UK might already denote that diplomatic language only and talks behind closed doors with the British government seem wasted political efforts to her.
Having a preference for keeping the UK in Europe, Merkel is likely to be aware that her move might play into the hand of euroscepticism in Britain. The fact that she does not seem to care too much about this could signal that she finished to consider British discussions around the ‘Brexit’ to be a European issue, ultimately declining Cameron to continue a two-level play of blaming European politics in Britain and using British euroscepticism to drive change in Europe. To be or not to be in Europe will be a British affair only, if restrictions on the freedom of movement remains the aim of British politics. Bringing the discussion back to the UK only is certainly a common ground even with euroscepticism, but it is not making it easier for Cameron.
The signal seems that Europe will deal with whatever the British decide. The EU clearly prefers to keep Britain as member, but is prepared to give up the friend. For the months to follow, more negligence toward British domestic affairs might become the default option in Europe, a move that is paradoxically caused by too much British politics in recent European discussions. Ultimately, however, such negligence drives neither change in the EU, nor does it serve British interests. The most likely solution at this point, therefore, might be negotiations over a reduction in the benefits for migrants, while not restricting the freedom of movement. This is in the interests of both countries, but whether it is enough to keep Britain in the EU is not yet decided. But for some countries, this might not be the most important point anymore.
Dr Anja Jakobi is Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway.


Posted on Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at 04:26PM by Registered CommenterDr Alister Miskimmon | CommentsPost a Comment