This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar

Myths and facts on the EU budget: The EU Commission doesn’t understand politics

The EU Commission has produced a website on “Myths and facts” about the EU budget.

Now while some of the myths and facts corrections are just simple detail provisions, others are misleading, simple spin or, what I think, a misunderstanding of politics. The Commission tries to make this a “myth vs facts” issue, but it shows the Commission self-definition of a non-political body. As if everything EU was about technical details, sums and percentages and not a political debate about what is right or wrong.

Some examples:

Myth: The EU costs too much!

The Commission’s answer:

Simply not true.

A Tax Freedom Day comparison is telling. When you calculate how many days in a year you have to work to pay the total of your yearly taxes, the national tax burden is means that people work until well into spring and summer until they have paid their contribution. By contrast, to cover his or her contribution to the EU budget, the average European would have to pay only four days, until 4 January.

First of all: “The EU costs too much!” is a political statement, not a fact. You can’t get rid of this by comparing GDP with national budgets and the EU budget. What about the EU costing too much because it spends the largest part of its budget on agriculture? What about the EU costing too much because its regulations cost more than they actually bring to society? I’m not saying the latter is necessarily true, but if you take such a “myth” seriously in a political way, you’d have to do more than a Tax Freedom Day comparision

Myth: The EU finances silly projects like dog training centres or Elton John concerts!

The Commission answer:

This is another fallacy conveyed by some.

In both cases, the relevant authorities had to pay back every single cent that they wrongly claimed. Neither did cost a euro to the taxpayer.

Generally, the national and regional authorities in Member States select projects which they think are best suited to their needs in line within the strategies and priorities agreed with the Commission. Checks at different levels (project, national, EU) ensure the taxpayers’ money is protected to the best possible extent. In case a claim is not legitimate, the EU budget does not fund it.

First of all: These were cases that were actually financed through the EU budget. The fact that they had to be paid back was because they were discovered and, if I recall correctly, in the second case made public through media.

Second: There’s much more behind this than two “silly” projects. Check some more examples on followthemoney.eu.

And third: “Silly projects” remains a political statement. Even if everything is correct, one can be of the political opinion that the money is spent in a silly way. You can only counter this with political arguments, not “facts”.

Myth: The bulk of EU expenditure goes into administration!

The Commission’s answer:

This is absolutely wrong. The EU’s administrative expenses amount to less than 6% of the total EU budget, with salaries accounting for around half of that 6%.

More than 94% of the European budget goes to citizens, regions, cities, farmers and businesses. The EU budget focuses on bringing growth and jobs, tackling climate change, migration, cross-border crime and other challenges that affect us all. It helps boost prosperity, for example by better interconnecting Europeans through energy, transport and ICT infrastructure, by supporting less well-off regions to create growth and jobs both there and in the rest of the EU, and by pooling our efforts in areas like research. It is also about securing our own food supply. And finally, it is about making the EU’s size count in the world – just as the US and China make their size count, and pooling our efforts to help the world’s poorest people.

The salaries are paid to staff delivering and managing valuable EU policies that have a direct positive impact on citizens. Think of air traffic liberalisation, passenger rights or cheaper roaming charges…

Others are in charge of negotiating trade agreements that help to bring down prices on consumer goods and offer a wider choice of affordable products.

Some help the EU to draw the right lessons from the financial and economic crisis through better regulation and supervision of financial markets, while others prepare decisions to impose fines in cartel cases where consumers have been cheated of millions of euros through illegally inflated prices.

Administrative costs have been stable for a long time, and over the past five years serious efforts have been made to keep them low. The Commission has conducted a zero growth policy in relation to staff numbers. It has dealt with new competences and priorities through redeployment of existing staff and has asked for no extra staff beyond those resulting from enlargement. The Commission also decided to freeze its administration expenditure in 2012, a 0% change.

Just seven years ago, the European Commission undertook a major reform of its administration. This included lower recruitment salaries, creation of a contract agent category with lower salaries, higher retirement age, lower pension rights and higher pension contributions. This reform has already saved the EU taxpayer EUR 3 billion, and is expected to generate another EUR 5 billion in savings by 2020.

Now the myth as such may be wrong, but the proportions are so out of touch because a lot of EU money goes into agriculture. Take that away and the amount on administration almost doubles.

And the response by the Commission is also more a self-defence (“We are so nice, working so hard, doing so good“) that sounds like: “Even if we were the bulk of the budget, this would be money spent usefully.”  It’s the worst thing you could have written to counter “a fact”.

And apart from that, since the Commission engages in a debate about what is useful:

What the Commission doesn’t mention is how much of the rest of the budget actually involves outsourced administration (e.g. administration in projects)?

What the Commission doesn’t mention is that the EU has created more and more “agencies” over the last years. What do they cost? Aren’t they out of proportion?

What the the Commission doesn’t mention: How much is spent in time and travel costs for national bureaucrats involved in EU-related meetings? This may not figure in the EU budget, but it costs a lot.

Why doesn’t the Commission mention how much money is wasted because of the way travels are organised by EU institutions?

What about administrative costs that are created in the member states through regulations or through the need to administer EU funds?

Etc.

So the myth that a majority of the EU budget is spent on administration may be wrong, but the point behind the myth, namely that maybe some or even a lot of administrative costs are useless or way over the top (or maybe even hidden) is not really countered. According to the answer, everything the Commission is doing is fine, all the money for administration is well-spent and the Commission actually is the best one to prevent administrative costs from rising. It’s a nice try, but hard to believe.

Now I could continue, but I think my point is clear (and my time is scarce).

Some of the myths may be kind-of-myths, but maybe behind every myth lies a political truth, a truth that the Commission doesn’t address because this would mean to engage in a more meaningful political debate about what is actually useful and what is unnecessary instead of giving simple and self-defensive answers which can be agreed within the bureaucracy.

If you have to fight against eurosceptics who say the EU is useless after all, I wouldn’t advise anyone to use the Commission website for arguments – you will heavily lose against anyone with a little interest in a good political discussion.



10 Responses to Myths and facts on the EU budget: The EU Commission doesn’t understand politics

  1. avatar mathew says:

    All good points, but you only tackle some of the ‘mythbusts’, perhaps due to lack of time? I ask because I find some better than others … and you only single out the problematic ones.

    Which is fair enough if one wants to be a critical blogger, but overall this sort of rebuttal system is something I’ve been calling on the EC and EP to do for quite some time now, and I would not expect them to get it 100% right first time. Perhaps we should give them scores? ;-)

  2. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    I’ve picked for time reasons and since time was scarce I picked ones from the top of the list as they appeared on the website (so as most people would find them). Some of the others are a bit more ambiguous and would need extra research to be counter-busted… :)

  3. avatar Koen Doens says:

    Politically, I’m in favour of the EU budget whereas, politically, others are against. The difference is that my political stance is substantiated by factual arguments whereas others’ isn’t. Does that make me less political? I don’t think so. Is that avoiding political debate? Not at all. But when myths are used by those who build their political stance on it, I believe it’s right to set the factual record straight. Then let the real political debate begin.

  4. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @Koen

    But that’s exactly my point with at least two of the “myths”: They either don’t concern any facts (“The EU costs too much!”) or they are actually factually right (the two projects mentioned were actually financed by the EU and the money was claimed back later at least partially due to public pressure) or again not factual (“silly” being a term that you can use without using the facts).

    So either you take concrete false factual statements by one side and you show that they are factually wrong or you take political statements by the other side and you enter into a public debate why you are convinced the opposite is true. But in your myth-busting you mix facts and politics, and that makes your case much less convincing in my eyes.

  5. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    Oh, and what I forgot to say: If I had done this website, I would have linked sources both for the “myths” and for the “facts”. That would be much more credible. How do you calculate for example the 6% administration? Which things do you include and which do you leave out? For me, this would be facts.

  6. avatar Andreas says:

    Koen, maybe we speak not yet about the same things in the same way, but if I start from the examples Ronny has picked, I completely disagree with you. This is not about your political stance of being in favour of the EU budget being substantiated by factual arguments, whereas others’ political stance of being against the EU budget is not substantiated by factual arguments. I might oversimplify your statement, but this is the impression it makes on me, and this is what I, quite fundamentally, disagree with. The world is not as black and white, there are factual arguments for the two politically more extreme and opposite opinions as well as for all the nuances in between.

    And oh yes!, this is all about avoiding political debate. We all know, and there are several initiatives doing great work around these issues, that there is a remarkable amount of idiocy going on with European money. From Südzucker receiving millions of subsidies to scandals of dubious contracts to friends of officials, there really is plenty of abuse, waste and bullshit going on. The question is not whether this happens or not, it does. The question is: how do I position myself in relation to these shortcomings? What is my interpretation, and my political judgment?

    I could easily say, and you cannot disprove me because I am not wrong — I am just opiniated!, that the level of corruption, abuse and inefficiency of European funding is so high that the EU agricultural and social funds should be abandoned altogether.

    I could also easily say that the cases of corruption and abuse and inefficiency only account for a small percentage of the European Union’s budget, and therefore these shortcomings should be addressed but hey, the system works just fine.

    (For the record, neither of these is my personal opinion, I just want to illustrate my point.)

    So what I would like to see from the European Commission when it comes to ‘myth-busting’ is indeed a response that is based on fact, and takes a pro-EU stance, such as:

    “Over the years, numerous smaller and larger cases of abuse, corruption and inefficiency of European funding have gained public attention. Here is a list of the cases, here is what we have done about them, and here is who you can contact if you know of any problem in your context.”

    What the EU does with the myth-busting site is self-denial, and if it weren’t so bad and sad I would totally think it’s a piss take.

  7. Glad I was not the only one who found the arguments a bit strange sometimes. Two more examples:

    No EU tax planned: Isn’t the financial transaction tax and the tax on greenhouse gases planned to go to the EU budget? Isn’t there indeed a long-term discussion about “directly” funding some parts of the EU budget (as already the case in some specific areas anyway).

    Court of Auditors: Do I see this correct that the Comission is here distinguishing between the discharge on the Commission and other EU institutions?

    My advice: keep it short and at a point where things can not be argued. Otherwise this will be receive the same trust as some of the myths itself.

  8. avatar mathew says:

    Once again a very good discussion on a post on this blog.

    The choice the Commission faces is a familiar one, and is faced by all organisations like it, plus large companies, etc: you can either be Transparent or you can try to Spin.

    In truth, it’s not a choice.

    Everyone who’s been following the worlds of online communication for the past few years will know knows that Spin is a recipe for failure in the age of social media – it’s just not possible to ‘own the debate’, or keep uncomfortable facts out of the public eye. You just end up looking stupid when you try, and undermine your position in the debate.

    Being transparent is not easy for an organisation which is not used to it, particularly as it means owning up to Not Being Perfect. But doing so is one way of at least not looking ridiculous, and owning up to imperfections is one way of moving the debate on from the Sterile (For/Against) to the Constructive (How can we make it better?).

    Sorry for the self-promo plug, but my last post is maybe relevant: Does more transparency make better comms?.

    To which I’d add the well-known saying: “If you’re going to be Transparent, Better be Buff!” ;-)

  9. avatar Dagmawi Elehu says:

    I agree with the point that if you are doing a myth vs facts-page, be scrupulous to only include myths and facts. However what else can the commission do? Their job *is* to be a-political but be seen by the public as political. The purpose of the commission as an institution is to be the bogey man that eurosceptics can point at while the European Council and the Council hash out the real EU politics in the back rooms.

    If the commission was a political executive it could actually argue politics with the public and the governments. They are charged with presenting the pro-EU face and arguments that the governments would want to but are not prepared to pay the political price of doing. So they outsource it to the commission and we get web pages like this. As the commission is actually apolitical, or politically neutered, what else can they do?

  10. avatar Jon says:

    Finally EU is challenging the myths about EU.

    Even though its a good point that “The EU costs too much” is a matter of opinion then it must be taken into account the wild stories among the public about EU costing too much, and this “mythbuster” is trying to tackle that. Take what the average European voter imagines what the budget of EU is, I think it is safe to assume the correct budget amount is that amount that the voters imagines it to be, divided by 10.

Subscribe to a fortnightly email featuring posts from Ideas on Europe hosted blogs

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.