The next MFF will matter to Britain – when the Commission gets its numbers straight

On 2 May the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Junker, and his sidekick, Gunther Oettinger (lets call them Junkinger), announced the European Commission’s draft of the European Union Multi-annual Financial Framework for 2021-27. In English that’s the EU’s next seven year budget.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that this MFF commences the day after the UK shuffles off from its intended ‘transition’ period into the wilderness of ‘third country’ status. So why should we care about what’s in the next EU budget, after all, the UK will by then not be paying into the budget? 

That depends, to some extent, on the approach that the UK takes to its relationship with the European Union in the future. If, as seems probable, there is to be some kind of relationship with the EU Customs Union and the Single Market, then the UK will also end up with some kind of contribution to the European Union. If the UK also wants to sign up to various EU programmes - such as the Erasmus+ student mobility scheme, the Horizon Europe (Framework 9) research programme, ITER/fusion research and the various space ventures for example then it will bear expected to contribute on a ‘pay and play’ basis. The bigger the programmes, the more important membership to UK institutions. Contributions from the UK are likely, whatever combination of the above come about, to be larger than those made by other third countries like Norway and should probably be made direct to the budget for the sake of transparency. 

As I explained it a previous article the level of funding for the next MFF is a political choice for the EU27. Although Britain leaving the EU budget leaves a theoretical ‘gap’ of about €12bn annually, the real level is both debatable and difficult to measure. €12bn is also not actually such a massive gap in practice - sure it’s a lot of money, but over 27 member states, not so much. How the EU27 decides to approach the next MFF will also define all sorts of things that will affect the UK free of any influence the UK might otherwise have brought to bear. For example, if the UK is to participate without a vote in EU security structures and, for example, the medicines agency and legislative framework then it can expect to pay its share. Less simply, if agricultural funding is reduced and EU27 farmers receive less support this will define the acceptable level of subsidy that the UK Government may provide to UK farmers so that their products would be regarded as in ‘fair competition’ within EU markets (by far the UK’s biggest agricultural export market). So if support to farmers is cut in the next MFF the UK Government is probably helpless not to follow suit. So much for sovereignty. 

However, nearly three weeks after Junkinger presented their proposals a series of questions arose on exactly what the figures that were much trumpeted to European media and given with bold headline figures to Parliament actually mean.

An analysis by the Parliament’s Budget Secretariat, the politically neutral EU Civil Servants who service the Parliament committee system, threw up a series of questions over the price base used for the Junkinger claims. In a seven year budget this matters rather a lot. It is the difference between the Junkinger boasts to have “doubled” Erasmus+ and an increase of 70+% - still a lot, but also a lot less, or between a significant 50% increase in Framework programmes and a not so special 27% rise. Now even though being the Prime Minister of Luxembourg is only marginally more significant than leading Hampshire County Council, Mr Junker is an experienced and clever man, as is Herr Oettinger, who was the Premier of Baden-Wurttemburg, in South West Germany. Both would have gained a grasp of PR and expectation management, but if they did, then why was Junker running Brussels around talking about “trebling” Framework 9, while Oettinger told the Budget Committee of his intention to “double” the programme and “treble” Erasmus? Disappointment follows as night follows day and is compounded by the failure to respond to Parliament initiatives such a the Child Guarantee, wider youth policies and the shuffling of the EPPs ill founded, untested and poorly costed plan to give Interail passes to 18 year-olds into the Erasmus budget line. Then why was Junker on more than one occasion talking about “no cuts” to Parliament while his colleague was peddling the notion of 50:50 cuts to new funding? Even if we ignore those claims as ‘just talk’ then we still end up wondering what on earth the Commission thought would happen when they failed to make clear the basis of their calculations? Could they not have anticipated the reaction from politicians of being taken for fools? It’s all a very odd way to communicate a key set of decisions and can really only be either incompetent or mendacious. 

Then there is the rationale over some of the decisions, like the requirement to mainstream climate funding to 30% of the budget - reduced to 25% for no apparent reason or the declaration that the external border agency Frontex will be recruiting 10,000 border police to assist with the protection of frontiers - something for which it becomes apparent after my questioning of the boss of Frontex there is neither a request, a rationale nor a plan. 10,000 border guards the right solution - who knows, but it sounds good on a press release. 

The doubt over exactly what the figures might mean in ‘real terms’ makes the assessment of the Junkinger proposals even more complex than was already the case. The absence of an in-depth analysis of the detailed implications of Brexit for the future EU budget makes it even more difficult to reach sensible conclusions. The avoidance of the latter issue among the Commission’s Budgeteers has been in stark contrast to the rigour with which Mr Barnier’s Task Force 50 has taken on the wider legislative implications of Brexit. 

My take is, though the justification of the figures may be some way off and may yet generate more heat than light, the MFF proposals represent a growth budget of sorts. More worrying is that it seems to be a plan where the requirement for positive headlines matters more than the need to flesh out detailed and real solutions to key challenges for Europe and its peoples.