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Games leaders play


Thursday 7 February 2013
Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, is a master tactician. From conversations with diplomats and officials who are familiar with his thinking, I've pieced together what I think are some of the ingredients of Van Rompuy's approach to the special budget summit that gets underway in Brussels later today (7 February). 

What Van Rompuy will try above all is to narrow down to a manageable number the areas of serious disagreement between national leaders. He has identified their red lines, their pet causes, their national sensitivities in months of bilateral meetings since the last, failed, budget summit in November. Knowing the basic parameters, he now wants to pre-empt a game beloved of politicians: raising artificial last-minute demands which they can then "drop" as part of a "compromise" which secures their real demands. 

At the same time, Van Rompuy wants to have a reserve of items that he can use to facilitate a compromise across unrelated matters. For example, the confusion surrounding the youth employment initiative that Van Rompuy announced (without further detail) on Tuesday allows him to play with the blend of sources from which the new scheme is supposed to be financed. He can "cut" or "beef up" something that doesn't even exist yet, at no real cost to anyone. At the same time, the mere existence of the scheme allows those leaders who have been calling for a "modern" or "forward-looking" budget to claim that their demands have been met. And it allows Van Rompuy to leave alone, apart, perhaps, of symbolic tinkering, the huge chunk of money that goes to farmers' subsidies and regional aid.

As in all negotiations, the ability to manipulate figures is a critical ingredient of success. That goes both for the broker - Van Rompuy - and the negotiating parties, who will have to go home after the summit and sell the deal to their constituents. What some call "cuts" are concessions some leaders make on a draft proposal that is subject to negotiations - not what most normal people would understand by the term. 

Then there's the game of using different sets of numbers depending on the context. Some demands - David Cameron's demand that the budget ceiling should come down to €900 billion, for example - concern payment appropriations; others, for example the magical €1,000bn figure that the budget is not supposed to exceed, refer to commitment appropriations for future payments, a figure that as a rule is higher than provisions for actual payments. (Moreover, the €1 trillion figure also includes off-budget items such as €27bn in development aid.) The draft long-term budget also includes big-ticket items such as the Galileo satellite navigation programme (€6.3bn in Van Rompuy's proposal from November) that are outside the current spending plan (2007-13), further muddying the waters.

These fuzzy areas are helpful in striking compromises. They help obscure the painful concessions that some leaders will have to make tonight. But in the end, the real figures will emerge, together with a more accurate picture of the balance of power between the EU's 27 member states. Thankfully for national leaders, most media attention will have shifted elsewhere by then. 

The real question, of course, is whether these tactics will be enough to secure a deal tonight. The broker's skill will only go so far. Nobody's betting on a quick deal.

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Toby Vogel

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