Though any issue that leads to a parliamentary defeat of the UK government is bound to be seen as a big deal politically, the recent spat over the European Union budget may look like a storm in a tea-break a few weeks down the road.
Its possible long-term significance, however, should not be measured by the spray-paint thinness of the arguments deployed in the House of Commons set-piece.
An unholy alliance between a Labour Party desperate to score points and a Tory right eager to flex its Eurosceptic muscles revolved around the attempt to force Prime Minister David Cameron’s hand towards lobbying for a cut in the European Union financial settlement, rather than a freeze.
This is gesture politics par excellence, since there is no real chance of achieving it. But the willingness of Labour to toy with anti-Europeans, and the claim by German-born Birmingham MP Gisela Stuart that Britain might need to disengage from the European Union on its current trajectory, is still remarkable.
To say such a thing would have been unthinkable outside the political fringe a few years ago. Since then we have seen an enveloping Eurozone crisis, the lamentable growth of UKIP, and deepening resistance to federalism at Westminster.
European divisions within the Conservative Party may also prove more destabilising of the coalition than other wrangles between its partners.
The irony here is that UK parties bitterly opposed to a self-governing Scotland have either become more inward-looking in their own thinking or (in the case of the Liberal Democrats) have forgotten their federalist instincts north of the border.
On the other hand, a swathe of the Scottish independence lobby is looking to be part of a wider solidarity within Europe – the SNP’s previous slogan – while forging distinct, autonomous domestic policies within these islands. In other words, confederalism by any other name.
The referendum debate may not reflect that, since referenda and the political polarising around them remain blunt instruments, but it is part of the larger debate that needs to be happening.
Meanwhile, the temporary Labour-Conservative alliance against the EU budget, which senior MP Margaret Hodge has understandably called “outrageous”, remains premised on the same old economic consensus that austerity is the best way out of recession and that spending less automatically saves you money.
In fact the EU budget, which has been falling in real terms as a proportion of member states’ GDPs over the past ten years, is principally about investment. Administration accounts for around seven per cent. Even the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) portion has fallen from 70 per cent to 30 per cent of the settlement over the past 20 years.
Moreover, while Britain’s net annual EU contribution amounts to about £115 per head of population, the long-term return benefits through financial multipliers, economies of scale and research & development far outweigh this.
Of course there is room for real, substantial reform. The CAP remains an iniquitous example of subsiding waste and wealth. Regional policy requires constant adjustment. Environmental impact and social cohesion should shape competition policy, rather than the other way round.
There is also a serious democratic deficit within the European polity and a flawed fiscal faith in cutting budgets rather than rebuilding economies.
But to address these issues properly, Britain’s political leaders should abandon rather than feed the constrained Westminster mindset that the recent EU budget row exemplifies.
Also worth reading:
* Gerry Hassan, 'Euro-sceptics may be the real petty nationalists', Scotsman, 3 November 2012 - http://tinyurl.com/cb49gts
* Jon Worth, 'Labour’s approach to EU budget reform is all wrong', Labour List - http://tinyurl.com/cttt3sb
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted and slightly expanded from his November 2012 politics column in Third Way, the magazine of Christian comment on culture and society. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/