British Prime Minister David Cameron has arrived in Brussels for the EU summit promising to go into budget talks all guns blazing – for a cut in EU spending and to keep intact the UK rebate.
“No, I’m not happy at all,” he said entering the meeting.
“These are very important negotiations. Clearly, at a time when we’re making very difficult decisions at home over public spending, it would be quite wrong for there to be proposals for this increased spending in the EU. So we’re going to be negotiating very hard for a good deal for Britain’s taxpayers and for Europe’s taxpayers, and [to] keep the British rebate.”
Cameron has threatened to veto any budget he does not like, whipped on by his party’s eurosceptic wing and a lurch in public opinion against the EU that the Labour opposition, in principle pro-European, is also exploiting.
Yet most of his fret and fury is meant for the audience at home to hear; despite a rise in speculation about Britain leaving the EU, no one seriously believes this is on the cards any time soon. And following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments this week, and consultations with Brussels’ EU constitutional lawyers, few believe a British veto will matter much, as the Germans may simply ignore it and drive the budget through.
Yet the perceived British self-interest is shared by seven other EU members, including France and Germany calling for budget cuts. Many of the cuts considered would fall on development programmes in the south and east of the bloc, designed to make those member states’ economies more coherent with their more prosperous northern partners. This is why Italy and Portugal have threatened to veto a budget that would hit them too hard.
There is some support in some quarters for increased spending in some areas to boost growth and offset austerity. But there is also widespread dissatisfaction that, in 18 years of EU budgets, the EU’s financial controllers, the European Court of Auditors, have never signed off on the accounts, complaining of waste, corruption, and a lack of transparency.
Brussels-bashers and objective observers alike agree that this is a longstanding feature of the EU’s way of stumbling along, which they say is in urgent need of correction.
And, as some in places like Spain, Portugal, Greece or Italy complain, it is precisely because of corruption and misuse of development funds that the EU’s poorer regions have failed to catch up and now find themselves in this crisis.