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Leader: Cameron must steer a steady course on Europe | Striking is not the best defence

Prime Minister David Cameron

Prime Minister David Cameron

In A speech in Zurich after the Second World War, Winston Churchill called for the building of “a kind of United States of Europe”.

It is a phrase often quoted by Euro­philes. However, it is as unwise to quote Churchill today – his remarks were made in the aftermath of a war statesmen were determined never to repeat – as it would be to quote some of Margaret Thatcher’s more belligerent remarks about Europe.

Unwise, but it continues to happen, with many a Tory MP gleefully repeating the Iron Lady’s “no, no, no” remarks, delivered in response to early plans for political integration, in the context of the latest Brussels moves to greater economic centralisation.

Against this backdrop, David Cameron has to navigate through the storm-tossed seas of the latest row over the European Union’s budget for 2014 to 2020.

Of the issues that face Mr Cameron, the most straightforward is the budget. The Prime Minister is right to oppose a European
Commission-proposed 5 per cent rise in the EU budget. At a time when all of the countries of Europe are facing financial austerity, and when countries such as Greece and Spain are forced by the EU to take measures which are causing their citizens genuine hardship, the commission proposal is unacceptable.

Why should UK taxpayers foot the bill for projects such as the planned European Council headquarters, at a cost of €310 million, some £250m?

Yet nothing is straightforward in Europe. Other countries have their agendas. France wants to protect the Common Agricultural Policy, which supports her farmers. Countries being squeezed in the euro crisis want something back to show austerity is not a one-way street.

Into this mix comes the suggestion the UK would be excluded from the EU’s inner councils if it continues its tough budget stand, and veiled threats to Britain’s rebate.

Lastly, for Mr Cameron there are the increasingly loud rumblings in his party suggesting that the UK should not be in the EU at all, something which has alarmed not just Tory europhiles like Ken Clarke, but also the CBI.

What should the Prime Minister do? First, he should stand firm on the budget. Not only is this right in principle, but he may yet find other allies in the EU ready to follow his lead, even if they have not yet been brave enough to support him in public.

Second, he should use this stance to demonstrate his resolve to his eurosceptic back-benchers, while making it very clear the UK’s long-term economic interest lies in being part of the European single market guaranteed by the EU, as the CBI rightly said yesterday.

This strategy might not end the debate in the Tory party over Europe, and may not win him many friends in the EU, but it gives Prime Minister the chance to play the best of a bad hand when he arrives at the budget talks on Thursday.

Striking is not the best defence

They make an unlikely picket line, the placard-carrying lawyers who assembled outside Edinburgh Sheriff Court yesterday, on the first day of their strike action against cuts to the legal aid budget.

Picket lines are more usually manned by those who toil by hand rather than by brain, and it would be easy to belittle these middle-class strikers. What might their slogan be? “What do we want? Jurisprudence! When do we want it? At your convenience, My Lord.”

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss this action by the Edinburgh Bar Association in flippant terms, for the lawyers have strongly held views (shared by colleagues across Scotland) which caused them to disrupt the custody court yesterday.

Defence solicitors worry that changes in a Scottish Government bill forcing accused with a disposable income of more than £68 a week to contribute to their defence costs, with lawyers responsible for collecting the contribution, will undermine the integrity of the justice system.

If the system forced people to defend themselves, rather than employ a solicitor, and perhaps even enter guilty pleas as they were unable properly to represent themselves, these fears would be of concern.

Against this must be set a need to reduce the legal aid budget of the Scottish Government, which hit a record £161.4 million in 2011-12. Ministers want it cut to £132.1m by 2014-15. This substantial sum will continue to help the less-well-off employ lawyers.

However genuine their concerns, disrupting courts in the name of the justice system is not the right way for solicitors to make their case.

 

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