The narrative around EU long-term budget negotiations, at this week's summit and those of the past, has often been centred on a conflict between France and the UK over agricultural subsidies. In fact much of the coverage leading up to this summit set it up as if it would be a boxing match between the two countries, with the other countries along to watch.
But judging by the press conferences held by European leaders after the summit collapsed with no agreement tonight, the traditional ‘British rebate versus French agricultural subsidies' debate was only a bit player in the talks.
At his press conference UK prime minister David Cameron had nothing to say about France and agricultural subsidies. Instead, he wasted no time in laying out the true enemy – the EU institutions. All of them.
“Brussels continues to exist as if it is in a parallel universe,” he told journalists. “Last night the Commission didn't offer one euro in savings, not one euro. Frankly the idea that the EU institutions are unwilling to even consider these kinds of changes is insulting to the European taxpayer.”
He railed against EU civil servants getting expatriate allowances on top of their “already generous” salaries. He mocked the “automatic promotion” given to Commission officials, and derided the fact that more than 200 Commission staff make more than he does as a prime minister. He is demanding a 10% cut in the administrative budget, which he says will deliver a savings of €3 billion over the next budgetary period in 2014-2020.
Cameron was keen to portray himself as a champion of the European taxpayer against wasteful EU spending, which apparently is defined as the money the EU spends on itself. “I think I'm here to defend the European taxpayer, not just the British taxpayer,” he said. “Who is there to stand up for the taxpayer? Which institution in Europe is there, rather like the treasury, to say where's the money going to come from? Who's going to pay for this? The problem is the institutions of the European Union are all in favour of spending money, but they're not in favour of saving money.”
To hear him, you might not have known that the administrative funds the EU spends on itself are just 6% of the EU budget - and that Cameron's suggested €3 billion savings on administration would be only a 2% savings on the entire 2014-2020 amount of spending being proposed. Based on this press conference you might have thought the EU's sole purpose is spending lavishly on itself.
But when it came to the prospect of cutting agricultural subsidies or regional aid spending, which together make up 80% of EU spending, Cameron was strangely silent. A reporter asked him why he was blaming Europe's institutions for the failure of the talks, rather than the French for arguing for more farm subsidies or Poland for arguing for more regional aid. Cameron simply said “it's not helpful to point the finger of blame,” and then quickly returned to pointing his finger at the European institutions.
Of course there is diplomatic sensitivity involved here – it is easier both in terms of foreign policy and domestic policy to heap scorn upon nameless ‘Brussels bureaucrats' than to criticise a foreign country. But Cameron's steadfast refusal to criticise the concessions made to France and Poland in Van Rompuy's latest compromise draft – cuts that were made at the expense of research, education, health and infrastructure spending – suggest to me that a deal on that front has already been done.
I wasn't here for the last round of long-term budget negotiations in 2004, but I'm told the vitriol between France and the UK was much more on display back then. Could it be that the level of acrimony between the British people and the EU institutions has now reached such fevered heights that Brussels has managed to replace France as Britain's main punching bag?
The fact that Cameron spent almost the entirety of his press conference railing against a budget line item that represents 6% of the budget and fastidiously avoiding the big ticket items that make up 80% of spending shows that this is more about politics than numbers.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at DaveKeating@economist.com.
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