Sweet and Sour

Continental Europe does not share the same democratic tradition as the United Kingdom. At a general election in England, not only is it possible to vote out a government but also to vote out an individual, no matter how high in the party he stands. This is harder on the continent: proportional representation may well allow governments to change but the link between the vote of the elector and the tenure of the elected is severed – the party in effect decides who will receive your vote. Since the connection between the elected and the elector is thus less direct the whole tenor of the relationship changes with governments being less used to parliamentary scrutiny and public opinion and more used to getting their own way. Move this relationship yet one step further away from the electorate as with the European Union and you have a recipe for frustration – assuming, that is, your democratic tradition does expect parliament to hold the executive to account and, ultimately, to be able to vote it out.

This lack of democratic accountability is brought home, yet again, by the current negotiations over the EU budget for 2014-2020. Not unnaturally, at a time when all governments have to cut budgets, the UK position is that the EU budget must be frozen, if not cut. Of course, this does not suit the EU Commission and its allies in the EU parliament whose, members, far from seeking to hold the Commission to account, can always be relied upon join it in ever greater demands for other folks’ money. The United Kingdom, as the second largest net contributor to the EU budget, cannot it seems even raise this issue without being shouted down as somehow being a bad European and being awkward: even the other member states that agree with us prefer to hide behind the UK rather than speaking up for themselves. And it is particularly disappointing – although not perhaps wholly unexpected – that one of those increasingly vocal critics is Poland, the country which is the largest net recipient of EU funds (and which may receive even more next time).

Let us not forget – as the Poland seems to have done as it cosies up to its new best friends in Berlin (as Kipling said, history may not repeat itself but it often rhymes) – that the UK was one of only three countries which freely welcomed Polish workers and their families from the moment Poland joined the EU 2004, something Germany did not allow. Indeed it could be said that the UK government has done more to help the unemployed of Poland than the Polish government has ever managed. In addition to welcoming Polish workers to the UK, British workers have had to watch as companies re-locate jobs to Poland aided, no doubt, by their taxes (the Twinings tea bag factory relocated from South Shields to Poznan being a notorious example although, finally, the EU denied the company the £10 million subsidy). I do not suggest that the UK be shown any gratitude and this is not the main issue. The main issue, (as I wrote here in Europa, Europa) is that not only is the UK one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget, not only has it the freest markets in EU (from which Poles have certainly benefitted) but it has also been the most scrupulous in enacting legislation to meet EU directives. Therefore, on the basis that actions speak louder than words, the UK should be top of the class, and at the very least be listened to as part of the debate. However, the UK’s crime in the eyes of the Euro zealots has been to be true to its democratic tradition and to have the temerity to question why an un-elected, unaccountable, irremovable elite, impervious to the popular will, should continue to demand ever greater sums when its own auditors have for 18 consecutive years been unable to sign off on the accounts because of monies being unaccounted for. In other words, being a good member of this particular club does not allow you to express your opinion – that is something reserved for the latter day members who do not even pay their own subscriptions.

Of course, every country should fight for its own interests – and they do – but uniquely, it seems, the UK is castigated when it seeks to bring rationality to the budget debate. One would have thought that the Polish foreign minister, who read PPE at Oxford, would at least have had a greater understanding of the political constraints faced by David Cameron, his erstwhile Bullingdon Club chum. To be fair, he probably does although his colleagues seem slower on the uptake. For the country which is the largest recipient of EU funds to expect even more during a time of EU wide austerity is simply unrealistic and to turn on the UK for having the audacity to point this out shows a lack of intellectual honesty, to be expected, perhaps, from a government which, as I have written here before, believes of the recession that it has “sat this one out”. For those of us to who work to encourage greater business ties between the UK and Poland this souring of relations is unfortunate as it does not really reflect the good things that are happening on the ground but, be that as it may, Poland does itself no favours in the longer term with this sort of approach.

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