By Matthew Barrett
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David Cameron is going to have a busy fortnight: the Independent reports that he is going to be visiting and receiving heads of government across Europe, attempting to re-forge a coalition of like-minded states, who he hopes will support his position during the upcoming budget talks.
Mr Cameron's stance, a "real terms freeze" for the next budget period, was supported by Germany, France, the Netherlands and Finland back in 2010. However, Germany is now supporting an increase in the European budget, and the governments of France and Finland have since changed hands. Mr Cameron is expected to try and woo Denmark, Italy, Spain and Sweden in his attempt to avoid isolation.
This comes after Mr Cameron failed to sway Chancellor Angela Merkel during their meetings this week. The German position, of a "modest" increase in the budget, is less extravagant than the 5% increase proposed by the European Commission (taking the budget as a whole to €1 trillion), but it is an increase nevertheless. Downing Street fears that the Prime Ministers and Presidents of Europe will line up behind Merkel – a smaller budget increase is presumably considered quite a victory in Euro-land.
Merkel, during her stay in London this week, tried to win Mr Cameron to the cause of an increased budget by proposing a cut in the European Union's back office costs. However, the running costs of that body account for less than 10% of spending, which would clearly be an unsatisfactorily small target from which to try and reduce spending. As the Times' (£) Roland Watson points out, this does at least show that Mr Cameron's openly anti-increase stance has made European leaders wake up.
There will be two things on Mr Cameron's mind. Firstly, the spirit of the British people, which remains as redoubtably Eurosceptic as ever. The latest YouGov poll shows 49% of Britons would vote to leave the European Union if given the ability to vote in such a referendum today. Only 28% would vote to stay in, and 17% were undecided. This was contrasted with the Europhile Germans, 57% of whom were found to be in favour of staying inside the EU.
The second thing on Mr Cameron's mind will be his big European speech, due to be made later this year. Backbench opinion towards an "in-in" referendum is hostile. George Eustice, one of the founders of the pro-renegotiation backbench group, Fresh Start, said Mr Cameron must have the confidence to call an in-out referendum. Quoted by the Times, he said:
"Having done a successful negotiation, I have no doubt that it would be quite easy to win a referendum in terms of staying in. I think it would be important for the Government to have the confidence to put that question to the people. There’s got to be proper consequences to referendums otherwise they don’t really work."
Mr Cameron retains his stance that anything less frugal than a "real terms" freeze in spending will warrant a veto from the United Kingdom – which makes it unlikely that a deal will be reached at the summit later this month. A decision over the budget would then have to be postponed until next year, dragging the whole business on even longer, and taking even more of the Government's energy away from British affairs.