By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
There's something going on. In the Sunday Telegraph today, there is an offensive against wasteful spending of British money by the European Union.
This offensive comes in two parts. The first is from the frontbenches: Alan Duncan, the DfID Minister, complains that the European Union "forces" his department to hand over taxpayers’ money and then spends it however it wishes. The second part is from the backbenches: Tory MPs, "in a plan endorsed both by the Fresh Start Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs and the Open Europe think tank" want David Cameron to demand the return of around £4.2billion of funding which the EU plans to spend on poorer countries in Europe.
The Alan Duncan story is rather good, because it touches, as the Telegraph notes, both foreign aid and Europe, which is bound to excite the right of the party. The complaint Mr Duncan has is that £1.4 billion of DfID’s budget is sent to the EU for its own schemes, many of which are in countries Britain considers no longer worthy of aid, such as Morocco. Mr Duncan says:
"We share the people’s anger on this. We are forced to give money to the European Union. We ask them to focus aid on poverty but they don’t, and we have no choice in the matter."
It comes with some strong words from a "senior Tory":
"Brussels insists it does not “impose” its choice of aid projects on Britain but – in an escalation of hostilities – a senior Conservative separately accused the EU of lying. “If you want an EU lie, this is a classic one,” said the senior Tory. “It is a 100 per cent lie. We have been arguing with the EU whenever we can that the money should have a poverty focus.”"
It also contains plenty of juicy examples of what DfID has been "forced" to spend money on: developing Centre Parcs sites in Morocco, sending Lancashire policemen to Jamaica, spending millions to "prepare Iceland for EU membership", and so on.
The Fresh Start story is even better, because rather than being an appeal for DfID to spend aid money in other countries, it's an appeal to repatriate money and keep it in Britain. Fresh Start's complaint is that the "structural funds" (Britain's contribution, which does not come from DfID, for the period 2007-13 is £33billion) all members states must pay into are spent on subsidising the poorer regions of Europe.
If that wasn't a silly idea already, one must also take into consideration that these are European structural funds, administered by Brussels, and so have a history of gross mismanagement, fraud, abuse, and so on. Again, the Telegraph provides the maddening details: millions on an abandoned "luxury marina" in Madeira, £10million to subsidise Facebook, and so on.
Tory backbenchers, the newspaper reports, want David Cameron to demand the return of billions of structural funding for the period between 2014 and 2020, which could then be spent, if necessary, in Britain:
"Andrea Leadsom, co-founder of the Fresh Start Group, said: “Instead of recycling British taxpayers’ money throughout the EU we should be taking these decisions at Westminster. This new plan would be a vote winner in the bigger member states, who would benefit from it. It would be a repatriation of powers that should never have been handed over in the first place.”"
Now, what does all this mean? I don't think it's unreasonable to note that these two campaigns appear to have been launched on the same day. As Paul Goodman noted yesterday, Justine Greening, the new Secretary of State for International Development has warned against trying to prop up the Euro, and may well be one of the Cabinet's more Eurosceptic voices.
As Tim Montgomerie also noted on Friday, David Cameron basically wants to keep his referendum options open, while also saying things like "I do think what it is increasingly becoming the time for is a new settlement between Britain and Europe". The Fresh Start MPs are smart and well-connected, and will see all of this as an opportunity to push for small, but manageable, steps towards repatriation of powers. What does David Cameron think of witholding aid and structural funding from Europe?