By Matthew Barrett
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The European budget summit starts today. Amongst the best reports in today's newspapers comes from the Times (£), which details the different positions of a number of the European member states.
It's hardly a groundbreaking revelation to discover that the nations of Europe are fundamentally too different to co-operate in any serious way. Britain wants a cut in the European budget, funded by reductions to the administrative component of the budget.
The French are devoted to their farming subsidies, as are the poorer nations of eastern and southern Europe. They are fiercely resentful of those who attempt to reform the CAP (especially Britain). Other countries, especially Italy, are resentful of those EU member states with a rebate (and Britain in particular), the use of which they view as showing an insufficient commitment to the European project.
Mr Cameron hopes to have the support of a number of fellow Germanic peoples: the Dutch, Swedes, and Danes – and Finland. And Chancellor Merkel is said to be nearly as willing to cut the budget as Mr Cameron. But the main voice for a reduction in spending, Mr van Rompuy of the European Council, wants to target the rebates, and would reduce Britain's rebate by £1bn every year. This would clearly be unacceptable to Mr Cameron, and he could not agree to any such proposal.
At every turn, other European member states hold values completely opposed to Britain's position. The poorer nations, especially former communist countries, rely on the European cohesion and structural funds to pay for their infrastructure spending. The Mediterranean countries rely on subsidies for agriculture. The most involved of the European nations are simply too ideologically devoted to the European project that they don't consider a cut in funding palatable. These different viewpoints are unlikely to change.
Alas, this summit will have no conclusion. About half of the 27 member states are already willing to veto any proposals, and the summit season will simply roll on into the new year. Mr Cameron will therefore not be able to come back with a cut or freeze in spending, but nor will there be an increase – yet.
The dilemma for Britain is that if the current budget arrangements, whereby spending is agreed for the period 2014-2020, obviously can't work, the EU will simply switch to annual budgets with qualified majority voting. While this is currently unacceptable to Chancellor Merkel, it makes perfect sense from a Europhile point of view. The countries with a vested interest in higher spending would find it far easier to build coalitions than free market northern Europeans would with the poorer nations of Europe.
Many readers would take this fundamental schism in Europe to be evidence of Britain's need to leave the European project. But Mr Cameron says he is determined that Britain should stay in the EU, and for as long as this is the case, he must defend Britain's rebate and push for a cut (or freeze) in European budgets. Mr Cameron cannot maintain this position forever, though. Qualified majority voting on budgets will leave Britain's fundamental economic values trampled upon.