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TORN UNITY

Budgets hardly make news in most countries. The finance minister makes up projections of revenue, expenditure and borrowings once a year. The parliament sets aside some weeks for debate which its members hardly attend. After some compromises, it puts the budget behind, which is then forgotten for another year. As long as the government can muster a majority, passing the budget is hardly an issue. At least, that is how it works under parliamentary systems of British heritage. It can be more difficult in continental systems, especially if no party has a majority; passing a budget in Greece can be a protracted process because the government may fall a couple of times in a matter of weeks. But even there, the spectre of bankruptcy concentrates minds, and prime ministers manage somehow to get a vote passed just in time to take a decision in their briefcases as they take the flight to Brussels.

But the powers that be in Brussels seem incapable of passing the European Commissionís budget. The reason is that the European parliament, which sits 270 miles away from the European Commission, does not come into the picture; it is the representatives of the 27 member countries who have to meet in Brussels and agree on the budget by a vote of 27 to nil. Those who represent the poor East European nations receive subsidies; so they do not find it too difficult to agree, though some of them may stick out for a few more million euros. It is the rich Westerners who pay; it is they who dither and argue over wine and beer. The nationsí representatives are prime ministers, presidents or people of equivalent self-regard; they consider it a matter of national honour not to give an inch. The one prime minister who still thinks in terms of inches is the hardest bargainer.

The founding fathers of the European Union perhaps foresaw this tussle; so the Union makes up a budget only once in seven years. Just now the argument is about the budget for 2014 to 2020; it is over a mere trillion euros. That is not as big as it sounds, for the EU is still quite rich; the trillion euros are only a hundredth of its gross domestic product over the seven years. But the member governments do not feel rich. They have accumulated extravagant promises to their people, especially to the growing ranks of the involuntarily unemployed as well as those who are voluntarily unemployed, such as pensioners and students. Their promises are financed by extortionate taxes; so giving a per cent more to Brussels is unpopular, especially in the countries that get nothing in return. European countries have worked out some of the best models of democracy. But somehow, their inventiveness ran out just when they got into a union. Or maybe, infinite arguments are their latest invention.