After Wednesday's vote in the House of Commons, David Cameron could find himself the last "pro-European" in Britain. He will leave for Brussels next month for the seven-year EU budget summit trying to hang tough, but outflanked by his party rebels and by Labour, all wanting him to hang even tougher. He wants to keep the EU budget in line with inflation. The others want it slashed. Whatever next?
The EU budget is a flatulent confection of national, industrial and sectoral lobbies. It has never passed audit and makes Britain's Ministry of Defence seem a haven of cheese-paring efficiency. Cameron may want to keep it within inflation, but that makes no difference. Even the German compromise, for a modest cut, may not be agreed. Cameron thus finds himself trapped between the hopelessness of his own proposal and the fantasies of his opponents. To make matters worse, Denmark, Sweden and Austria are lining up behind Britain for special rebates. Small wonder that delegates next month have been told to bring overnight bags. It will be chaos.
The EU can disregard them all. Unlike America, stymied when Congress rejects a budget, it can go on spending what it likes pending eventual "agreement". Besides, it has no mechanism for restraining, let alone cutting, spending. Those who blow a whistle on its endemic corruption face dismissal or jail. For all its anthems, flags and public relations, the EU is not a nice organisation. The affection for it shown by a dwindling band of British politicians is bizarre.
Historians will wonder at what point the postwar European enterprise imploded into its core paradox: the impossibility of making a supranational union answerable to subsidiary national identities. The parallel is not with the US but with the old Soviet Union. It was forged in the idealistic aftermath of war to make war unrepeatable, an achievement for which the EU was eerily awarded a Nobel prize earlier this month. But that goal, now achieved, seems to obscure clear thinking. Moscow in 1990 was more realistic.