Is Brussels-bashing justified?

Article published on June 13, 2005
Article published on June 13, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The European Union spends over 100 billion euros a year. Most of this money is well spent but between fraud and the money-wasting parliamentary seat in Strasbourg the public don’t seem to think so.

The EU is not very popular nowadays and explaining this lack of popularity isn’t easy. The ‘general idea’ of European integration still enjoys support but the every day practicalities of the European Union simply don’t appeal to citizens, particularly because many people feel that the EU is wasting their tax-euros.

Member states, not Brussels, are to blame

The EU budget is hard to grasp. ‘Brussels’, that is to say the EU institutions, spends only 20% of it on its functioning. The rest is allocated to (and spent by) the member states, which all too often do not check that the money is used correctly. This makes any Europe-wide audit on expenditures difficult and leaves room for abuse.

In 1999, for example, a butter factory in the south of Italy was caught using non-dairy and dangerous ingredients in their products. The factory exported these products to other EU member states and was heavily subsidised by EU money. The fraud continued for years and was discovered only by coincidence, by Italian law enforcers who were investigating mafia murder cases. A recent report by Herbert Bösch states that this case cost the EU around 100 million euros, including investigative costs. Hardly confidence-building for an increase in Community spending.

But while national governments should be held accountable for the EU money they spend, the need for more transparency does not mean that the EU is ‘money wasting’. To the surprise of many sceptics, the total EU budget is only 1.24 % of GNP and most of this money is well spent. Unfortunately, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which created the infamous butter mountains and milk reservoirs, still accounts for roughly half of the EU’s budget. Although subsidised overproduction now belongs to the past, the image it helped to create still hurts the EU.

Strasbourg is a misuse of EU funds

It is this image problem which is the main reason why the belief that the EU wastes huge amounts of money is so strong. And some of the EU’s important symbols don’t help change this impression: the ongoing madness of the European Parliament travelling between Brussels and Strasbourg is one example.

Brussels is the main workplace for the European Parliament. But every month all MEPs and most staffers travel to Strasbourg for plenary debates and votes. According the latest estimations circulating within the parliamentary committee of Budgetary Control, the additional costs of not having a single parliamentary seat are at least 300 million euros annually. Within the total EU budget this is a tiny figure. But the symbolic costs rise far above its financial importance: the European Parliament is seen as a travelling circus and the European Union as a gravy train.

Evidently, this fuels support for the reduction of the EU budget to 1% of GNP, as demanded by France, Germany, the UK, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the national leaders’ tough stances in EU budget negotiations and their desire to score points with their electorates does not help change the EU’s image for the better. Moreover, the ‘budgetary restraint’ they advocate really means a reduction of these country’s membership fees, not more efficiency in spending or a change in the number of parliamentary working places.

We need the public’s trust

European integration is as urgent as it ever was. Internal peace and stability are no longer the only reasons. Faced with globalisation, environmental dangers, global poverty and new insecurities, integration is simply the only way to cope. Europe will have to reinvent itself if it wants to face up to these challenges and it can only do so with the trust of its citizens.

Reluctance to push for real change, for example the abolition of the Strasbourg seat, means missing an opportunity to start restoring public trust. And public trust is needed if politicians want to win support for giving up national sovereignty over extremely sensitive choices, a task which is hard enough without the burden of the popular perception that European integration is a money-wasting project.

Short term political opportunism will prove to be a huge future expense. Leaders that are serious about efficiency must use the budget negotiations as an opportunity to push for real change. And a European Parliament that takes itself seriously should do the same. In the face of public scepticism, the recent vote against a call for a single parliamentary seat was unforgivable. The next opportunity cannot be missed: the costs of not taking responsibility could be a refusal of the European people to recognise the Parliament as its representation, and the European Union as its ideal.