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Weariness Foretold: The EU Budget Summit

Weariness Foretold: The EU Budget Summit

by Binoy Kampmark
November 23, 2012

There were always going to be disagreements about next year’s EU budget, which started in the evening instead of a sensible morning hour, and occupied officials into the early morning. Various MEPs pitched for an increase in spending for this year (some 7.3 billion pounds) and the next. The European Parliament has been considering restoring some 6.5 billion pounds worth of funding slashed by governments from next years’ budget. The austerity battles continue to remain running affairs. Eight hours of negotiations only ended out in walkouts, suggesting that the summit to agree to the EU’s funding plans for 2014-2020 might be stalled.

The EU Commission’s claim is that an increased amount is necessary to pay the bills. New Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem found that claim barely believable. “I’d question that very much. The Commission has to re-prioritise, that’s just the way it is. Budgetary discipline is not just for the member states.”

The British are being characteristically cantankerous. When in doubt, cut, slash and burn. To be fair, the system of funding in the EU is such that increased contributions will be required from contributor economies if the desired amounts are to be met. Each state has its own domestic program to implement, austere or otherwise. That, at the end of the day, is a problem the EU has yet to resolve.

The rhetoric from Prime Minister David Cameron has been savage. He has threatened using the veto power with tedious regularity, though the move would be diplomatically foolish, given that the member states are not necessarily going to reach agreement anyway – for now. Cameron has persisted in following the line that funding should not be increased above the level of inflation. He has better things to do – namely, cutting domestic expenditure and scorching Britannia.

That doesn’t stop some observers of the British scene wondering if the “Churchillian” spirit in Cameron might recoil from the corner and make a foolhardy appearance – 1 resolutely against 26. “Perhaps because the Churchillian idea of Britain against the rest is so enticing and so much part of our national identity, there’s a tendency to see the budget talks as David Cameron battling a monolithic bloc called ‘Europe’ which wants our money” (Daily Telegraph, Nov 21).

The German position is similar to that of Britain’s, though Cameron’s feistiness has irked Angela Merkel. Bonn has every reason to be concerned by adding more than it needs to, seeing as it is the largest net contributor to the EU coffers. France’s François Hollande was more compromising, despite being at ideological loggerheads with Merkel and Cameron. “I am sure that with Germany, we are going to be – as always – a motor to allow this compromise” (EU Observer, Nov 23).

Others prefer a more balance appraisal about the EU budget. Indeed, as the nine countries or so that are net contributors forge the lines of preventing an increase, others are worried that various programs will simply cease or fail to be effective. Farm subsidies, always a part of common agricultural policy, is a sticking point, not to mention infrastructure projects in more depressed regions of the EU. Whether it is a matter of axing programs or simply not allowing for their increase, the results will be the same.

For Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, relaxation was the order of the day –“there is no drama if there’s no agreement tonight.” Then, his list of concerns: “Our main concerns are agriculture, the regions, ultra-peripheral regions, such as Ceuta, Melilla. If the EU budget goes down, then Spain will have to contribute less. But it is premature to talk about numbers now” (Telegraph, Nov 22). In future, it might well be worthwhile picking a more civilised hour to talk these matters through. Precisely because of their brutal scheduling, writes The Guardian (Nov 22), “these get-togethers are enveloped by an air of weariness foretold. The prospects for a game changer look remote.”

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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