U.K. seeks smaller EU budget

Posted in Europe | 30-Nov-05 | Author: Graham Bowley| Source: International Herald Tribune

UK Foreign minister and current chairman of the EU Council Jack Straw(R) speaks with Spaniard Josep Borrell, Chairman of the European Parliament.
LONDON Britain may propose a big reduction in the European Union's seven-year budget, for 2007 to 2013, that could fall heaviest on the poorer, formerly communist nations that joined the Union last year, say British diplomats and EU officials familiar with the proposals.

Officials of the British EU delegation declined to comment publicly on the plan, which is tentative. But a government source suggested that it would rely on the impatience of the new countries to secure billions of euros in new funds to persuade them to agree to a reduced deal on the budget at what will most likely be a contentious summit meeting of EU leaders on Dec. 15 and 16. Britain is the current EU president.

"It is no secret that the U.K., along with several other countries, has throughout this process wanted to see a lower budget," said the British source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. "Also, the 10 accession countries have made clear in our contact with them that they want certainty so that they can program their spending. For them the uncertainty is not helpful."

Details of the proposal emerged amid swirling rumors around the capitals of Europe about the intentions of Britain on an issue that triggered the breakdown of the last EU summit meeting, in Brussels in June.

Britain's defense of its annual budget rebate - an anomaly from Margaret Thatcher's years as prime minister - was blamed then by many for the dreary outcome of that meeting. A compromise put forward by Luxembourg in June was then blocked by nations that contribute heavily to the EU budget, principally Sweden and the Netherlands.

Britain has kept details of its new plans for solving the standoff a secret. It says it will publish its proposals at a special conclave of foreign ministers on Dec. 7, giving EU governments just a week to prepare for the summit meeting.

London's tactics for forcing a last-minute deal have drawn fierce criticism from EU nations that say they need more time to see details of the proposal, and have led some to declare Britain's six-month presidency of the EU a failure.

But the outlines of the plan suggest that Britain will seek to defuse the opposition of the big contributor nations by reducing the overall size of the budget, thus, it hopes, paving the way for a successful agreement next month. If the budget declines, then Britain will also be able to point to a drop in its budget rebate.

The 2007-13 budget is the first since the expansion of the EU to 25 countries from 15 in May 2004. The European Commission has called for generous contributions from the richer countries of Western Europe to cement the new poorer countries from Central and Eastern Europe in the EU.

"It is most urgent to come to a deal in December," Johannes Laitenberger, the EU Commission spokesman, said Monday. "It is clear that it is not those most in need which have to bring forward the biggest sacrifices."

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain is conducting a series of meetings before the summit meeting to prepare the way for Britain's plan. He was in Spain and was due to travel to Tallinn on Thursday for talks with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He will meet with leaders from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in Budapest on Friday.

Reports about the British plan for budget reductions were not a surprise because Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, has made several speeches in recent weeks in which he warned that the proposal would be significantly different than that put forward by Luxembourg in June.

Under the Luxembourg proposal, Poland, the biggest new EU member, would have received about 60 billion over the seven years.

A spokesman for the Polish government said in Brussels: "We have no reaction right now. Our government will not be satisfied with this plan. If the presidency is planning to cut 10 percent from the new countries, it will be difficult to get a deal."

And in an interview last week, Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said that Poland would remain an ally of Britain even if a deal is not struck in December, or if it involves big reductions. "Most probably we will be friends with Great Britain," he said. "You will know who is your real friend in a really difficult situation."

Another senior official said in an interview in Warsaw last Friday: "The rumor is that it will be a much smaller budget. That will please a handful of small net payers but it will displease many others."

A Downing street official who was in Barcelona for the summit meeting between leaders of the EU and of countries along the southern rim of the Mediterranean, said, "These negotiations are best conducted in private rather than in the news media."

Asked in Barcelona about the summit meeting's final process, Blair said he did not want to comment directly on the negotiations. "We will publish our proposals in due course, and when we publish our proposals we can all have discussions about them. For obvious reasons, this is a sensitive negotiation, and I think we should do it in the conventional way, as far as that's possible."

Renwick McLean contributed reporting to this article from Barcelona.