November 19, 2012 7:04 pm
Pre-summit brinkmanship is part and parcel of the choreography of EU summits. Deals are traditionally left to the last minute to be hammered out in dingy Brussels corridors. But as EU member states prepare to gather this week to try to settle the bloc’s next seven-year spending plan, it is harder to be confident that the summit will adhere to the familiar script.
Britain’s threat to veto any budget deal that does not freeze EU spending in real terms has become a huge sticking point for its partners. Far from narrowing towards some sort of last-minute compromise, positions are hardening. As the Financial Times reported on Monday, the other 26 member states have even been exploring the legally questionable idea of circumventing British opposition and doing a deal among themselves.
There are serious and principled differences between member states over the question of how much money the EU should spend. At a time of domestic austerity, Britain’s demands for budgetary restraint are not unreasonable. Even so, it is bizarre that the budgetary dispute might lead to a convulsive bust-up with potentially far-reaching implications for the future of the EU. The differences – for all the vehemence with which they are expressed – remain relatively minor in money terms.
After all, the UK proposal for a freeze, now so unacceptable to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was until recently her position as well. And Berlin’s new position, if more generous to Brussels, is not that far from London’s stance.
The danger is that both sides are tempted to grandstand rather than broker a deal that is acceptable to all. David Cameron, the UK prime minister, may find it easier to return to London having wielded the veto rather than with a deal that must be explained and sold to an increasingly sceptical parliament. Germany and other member states may dig their heels in out of sheer exasperation with Britain.
Mr Cameron’s position – it must be said – has not been made any easier by the behaviour of the opposition, which has at the same time called for an even tougher line on the EU budget and for the prime minister to take a more constructive approach to Brussels. This is pure opportunism.
It should still be possible to find a deal that avoids both a British veto and a fait accompli by the 26. Either of these would poison the UK’s relations with the EU and push it ever closer to a referendum and a possible exit that would benefit neither Britain nor Europe.
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