EU budget vote: Rebel MPs defeat government over spending cut call
The government has been defeated in Parliament on the EU budget after 53 Conservative MPs defied their party over the issue.
Tory rebels joined with Labour to pass an amendment calling for a real-terms cut in spending between 2014 and 2020.
The coalition says the budget must be frozen in real terms as a very minimum.
The amendment, passed by 307 votes to 294, is not binding on ministers, but is a blow to David Cameron's authority on Europe before key talks next month.
The defeat, the most significant since the coalition came to power in May 2010, came despite efforts by ministers to woo rebels and Mr Cameron earlier saying he would veto any budget deal if he could not get a good deal for Britain.
The rebel amendment calling for a real-terms reduction in EU spending was passed after a stormy debate in Commons on the 27-member union's next seven-year budget and UK contributions.
The European Commission's proposed budget for 2014-2020 would see a 5% increase in spending on the current seven year period.'Fed up'
What is the UK's net contribution to the EU?
- The UK is one of 12 EU members which makes a net contribution to the EU budget - meaning it pays in more than it gets back in EU funding.
- But there are different figures for what the UK's net contribution is depending on how it is calculated.
- The EU financial year runs from January to December. The Treasury says that in 2011 the UK net contribution to the EU budget was £8.1bn. But for the UK financial year, running from April 2010 to March 2011, the Treasury says the contribution was £8.91bn.
- The European Commission has a different figure. In 2011 it says the UK's net contribution was 7.25bn euros (£5.85bn; $9.4bn).
Government supporters said it would be "nigh on impossible" to negotiate a budget reduction given the lack of support among other EU nations and urged MPs to back Mr Cameron's call for an inflation-linked rise as the minimum acceptable outcome.
But Conservative rebels said Parliament would send a clear message and strengthen Mr Cameron's hand if they backed a spending cut.
"If you think the EU has too much money, its budget is too large and it needs to be cut, then vote for the amendment," Conservative MP Mark Reckless, who spearheaded the rebel position, told MPs.
After the vote, Mr Reckless told the BBC that the UK was "fed up" of giving more money to the EU every year and MPs had made clear a budget cut was the "only thing" they would accept.
"What this is about is our constituents' money," he said. "Parliament has spoken very clearly that unless there is a deal which is a cut in the budget which gives money back to taxpayers in this country, it will not get through Parliament."
Amid heated Commons exchanges, Tony Baldry - who was a minister in the government of John Major that was riven by splits over Europe in the 1990s - accused rebels of "self indulgence" reminiscent of past divisions.
"If this party hopes to be in government after the next general election it has just got to get a grip and start supporting the prime minister," he said.
But fellow Tory Conor Burns rejected analogies with the 1990s. "This is not Maastricht. The Conservative Party is united over Europe."
Foreign Secretary William Hague said ministers would "take notice" of Parliament's views, which reflected the "real concern" among MPs and the public about the size of the UK's financial contribution to the EU.
"MPs on both sides of the argument wanted EU spending to be kept down as effectively as possible," he said.
"The difference in this debate is over the tactics. The prime minister has made it clear that we are already going for the toughest position that any prime minister has gone for in EU budget negotiations."
End Quote William Hague Foreign Secretary
A government that is trying to deliver the toughest budget settlement in Europe in history is strong and purposeful and doing the right thing for the country”
It was "hard to see" other EU nations agreeing to cut spending since most were net gainers from the budget, he added: "Yes, we would love it if that budget went down but all the other countries have a veto as well."
And he rejected suggestions that the defeat showed the government's weakness over Europe and the leadership's inability to control its MPs.
"I would say a government that is trying to deliver the toughest budget settlement in Europe in history is strong and purposeful and doing the right thing for the country."
He also accused Labour of "very cheap politics" by voting for a budget cut after supporting huge increases in EU finances over the last decade.
But shadow chancellor Ed Balls said there had been cross-party support for the idea of reducing EU expenditure at a time of austerity at home.
"It is not about party politics, it is about the national interest. Parliament has spoken and David Cameron has got to listen and deliver.
"He has to put the national interest first if he is strong enough. I fear he may be too weak."