The EU is starting to annoy even its friends

If I feel a surge of disenchantment with the EU, what’s everyone else going to think?

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The Independent Online

I agree with Nigel

There is something I want to confess: I agree with Nigel.

When the leader of Ukip, responding to the news that the European Union wants £1.7bn of our cash within six weeks, said Brussels was like a “thirsty vampire sucking on UK taxpayers’ blood”, I thought, “He’s got a point, hasn’t he?” Me, a pro-European member of the Westminster political class, agreeing with Nigel Farage? If I feel a surge of disenchantment with the EU, what’s everyone else going to think?

It is not really about the sum of money –£1.7bn, while a punishing amount to pay by December, is a tiny percentage of our NHS budget, and the Government borrows close to that amount each week.

And you can try to explain this “wealth tax” away by saying that all governments, including ours, agreed with the new mechanism to calculate this levy, that our own Office for National Statistics (ONS) was complicit in stitching up the UK – and bankrupt Greece, of all countries – into paying more. That is not, really, what has driven me into agreeing with Farage.

No, it is the arrogance of what Ukip and other Eurosceptics love to call the Brussels bureaucracy, with its hard rules and cold statistics. While politicians in Britain did not see this coming, the European Commission certainly saw us coming. It is the fact that, when Angela Merkel tells David Cameron in a private leaders’ meeting that he should just “play by the rules”, it speaks to a wider, enraging truth about the EU: it is a vast, immovable object that you cannot argue with because it’s all about “rules”. The ONS may have been involved in the recalculation, but this exercise in goalpost-moving came from Brussels, from a European Commission who thought they could get it through without anyone noticing.

And here’s where I also agree with Nigel: it is wrong that the Commission is unelected and unaccountable. Yes, its members are appointed by democratically elected governments, but that’s not the same as democracy. No one goes into a polling booth in Woking and thinks, “I really want Jean-Claude Juncker to be president of the European Commission.”

Then there are the salaries and perks of EU staff: 47,000 EU officials (yes there are that many) enjoy a special low tax rate of 13.4 per cent, and 10,000 of them have a greater take-home pay than our Prime Minister.

This surprise £1.7bn levy is a crystallising of Westminster’s failure to make the case for remaining in the EU. It is a huge blow to the pro-European cause, but it could also mark a turning point.

I desperately want Britain to remain in Europe, because I think it makes us stronger in the world. We need London to be at the centre of financial services in Europe. We need the single market. We need immigration to make our economy strong. I do not, ultimately, agree with Nigel. Yet it is possible to believe in Europe and be angry about its arrogance and expense. But try to criticise Brussels and you are accused of wanting to leave.

Yet while Ukip and Eurosceptic Conservatives have made the robust case for leaving the EU, where have the pro-Europeans been? I believe we would be in a better position to argue against this levy if the three main political parties had explained why Britain is better in Europe. Cameron, in his Bloomberg speech last year announcing an in/out referendum, said he would fight with his “heart and soul” to stay in, yet last month he said keeping Scotland in the UK was 1,000 times more important than being in the EU.

At least the Tories are doing the most to press for radical reform. Nick Clegg, a former MEP, could have been more passionate about the EU, as well as honestly pointing out its shortcomings. And Ed Miliband has spent the past four years running away from the referendum issue, instead criticising Tory Eurosceptics for “banging on about Europe”. It turns out that banging on about Europe has been the right thing to do.

Sharp elbows required

When Miliband appointed Pat McFadden as his shadow Europe minister last week, he showed he is listening to those who are demanding more serious people on the front bench. McFadden was doing a fine job on the Treasury select committee but it was ludicrous that he had not been called up earlier. He is one of the last remaining Blairites and was a supporter of David Miliband, so quit the shadow Cabinet when his brother became leader.

His predecessor in the Europe role, Gareth Thomas, did an excellent job but it was Miliband, and foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander who steered Labour away from tackling the Europe issue. McFadden is going to need sharp elbows.

The Whigs are back

Only 146 years after disbanding, the Whigs have re-formed and will field candidates at the next election. They even have a Twitter account, @whigsuk, which was tweeting the 21st-century party’s values last week. These include that Britain’s “best days are ahead of us”, support for social justice, democracy and the NHS. The original Whigs were radical and progressive, but since their decline the Liberals and Labour filled this gap. There is a need for a new, centrist party in British politics, but I am not sure the Whigs meet this challenge.

Family first at the FO

I interviewed Deborah Bronnert, the new chief operating officer of the Foreign Office – and the first woman in charge of its entire corporate functions – last week about how flexible working and job-sharing in the diplomatic and civil service is now becoming the norm (see page 8).

Bronnert’s own routine involves leaving the office at 5pm so she can get home in time to put her young son to bed, before carrying on work in the evening. Many working parents, including me, do this – ruthlessly setting a deadline for leaving work but then catching up on emails until late into the night. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, also follows this routine. It has the best of both worlds – meaning precious time is spent with family – but is it really healthy to never switch off?

Twitter: @janemerrick23