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Leading article

Hold Brussels to account

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

After four years of economic crisis some kind of normality has at last been restored to European politics. The EU is at loggerheads with Britain again. After a prolonged period in which it seemed as if the EU would tear apart, its indebted southern members cast adrift from its more solvent northern members, it is almost comforting to see a return to the more traditional faultline in the EU: where the rest of the EU gangs up on Britain and accuses it of being isolationist.

Not once during the euro crisis has a country been singled out for such disapproval as Britain has since David Cameron demanded that the EU budget not be increased over the next eight years by any more than the rate of inflation. Fingers have been wagged at Athens from time to time, but never has Angela Merkel asked EU officials to prepare a set of negotiations which excluded Greece but included all other 26 member states. That, however, is what she has this week done to Britain: ordered a budget to be prepared for the next seven years which ignores British demands.

It says much about the EU that the most heinous crime that a member state can commit is not to spend recklessly and fail to collect its citizens’ taxes, blatantly ignoring the rules which were supposed to ensure the stability of the euro, but instead to draw attention to the greed and extravagance of the politburo which runs the EU.

As David Cameron made clear in his speech to the CBI on Monday, the misspending of European money goes right to the top — in the salaries, pensions and expenses of senior officials. Present any threat to the lifestyles of the people who inhabit this sheltered little world and you can expect a swift and brutal response, as the European Commission’s former chief accountant Marta Andreasen found to her cost when she dared to question the organisation’s accounting systems in 2002.

The real isolationists in the debate over the EU’s budget are those officials at the centre who seem entirely isolated from economic reality. It is bizarre, at a time when governments all across Europe have been forced to slash spending, that the European Council president Herman Van Rompuy can demand an annual rise in the EU’s budget of 5 per cent over the next seven years (and 6.8 per cent for 2013). Britain’s contribution to the EU, as a share of total public spending, has already doubled in the past four years.

It is outrageous that Van Rompuy should demand any increase at all, given that the EU Court of Auditors has refused to sign off the EU’s accounts for the past 18 years. There is no other area of government expenditure, not even the Department for International Development’s swollen budget, where money is handed out so freely with so little regard to how it is spent. Under these circumstances it would be reckless to agree even to an EU budget that is pegged to inflation. Last month, David Cameron was defeated in parliament over rebels’ demands that he use his veto to block anything other than a real-terms cut in EU spending.

The Prime Minister has not been thanked one bit by fellow EU leaders for refusing to go along with this vote; on the contrary, the EU has carried on as it always does, treating the parliaments of supposedly sovereign states with contempt whenever they dare to challenge proposals drawn up in Brussels.

We have been assured again and again over the past 40 years that Britain remains a sovereign state in spite of its membership of the EU. Now is Cameron’s chance to prove it, by obeying the instructions of his own parliament and vetoing any budget proposal which increases EU spending by a single euro.

A million little libels

It goes without saying that Lord McAlpine has been horribly wronged. He has been falsely accused of a crime that not only deeply offends decent people but that provokes murderous outrage in others. Yet the zealousness of his lawyers is no cause for celebration — even if, as reported, the peer will only demand ‘sensible and modest’ compensation from most of the 10,000 tweeters who sullied his name, and will give it all to charity.

It is only thanks to Lord McAlpine’s wealth that he has been able to take the course of threatening thousands of tweeters with libel action. Few of those who are being pursued have the means to defend themselves in court: they have no option but to settle.

Lord McAlpine is beyond doubt innocent of the charges which were laid at his door by a poorly researched Newsnight investigation. But our libel laws have equally commonly been used by rogues such as Robert Maxwell, whose larcenous activities only came to light after his death, and Jimmy Savile, who used the threat of libel to suppress reporting of his abusive activities while he was alive.

The US, through its Speech Act, has already declared English libel laws to be in breach of its constitution. Our government has committed itself to some changes in the shape of the Libel Reform Bill. But they do not go far enough. The brave measure would be to abolish libel as a civil offence and instead to bolster its use as a criminal sanction, to be used against those who deliberately and wrongfully accuse others of serious offences, without threatening the free speech of scientists, critics, vegan protestors and all others who have found themselves silenced by the threat of grossly inflated libel costs.


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