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.” ┬áIt’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

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.