Budget poker tests EU
Brussels - The European Union this week once again put on public display how difficult forging a deal in the crisis-ridden bloc has become. Nevertheless, its 27 leaders managed to counter critics by delivering a new budget for the next seven years
"It’s perhaps nobody’s perfect budget, but there’s a lot in it for everybody," EU President Herman Van Rompuy said as he emerged from more than 25 hours of haggling about the 2014-20 spending plan.
"This was our single longest meeting so far in my mandate, but it was worth working for this result," he added. "This compromise shows a sense of collective responsibility from Europe’s leaders."
Talks on the so-called multi-annual financial framework (MFF) have always ranked among the EU’s toughest negotiations. This time the stakes were particularly high.
Leaders already had failed once to deliver a deal, just as Europe was starting to regain some of the trust it has lost because of the continent’s enduring economic crisis.
They also faced strong domestic pressure from other politicians and citizens who have had to tighten purse strings and expected the EU to follow suit.
British Prime Minister David Cameron faced the most strain, with expectations high among his increasingly eurosceptic and austerity-hit compatriots that he should rein in EU spending.
Both on Thursday and Friday, Cameron demonstratively arrived on foot for the summit talks, leaving his convoy out of sight of television cameras - while other leaders were filmed pulling up in luxury cars.
Then he joined forces with financially conservative nations such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden to ward off a push by France and Italy to preserve spending in the budget, amid arguments that they would undercut growth.
"The British government should be given credit for pulling this one off," analysts at the British eurosceptic group Open Europe said.
It isn’t permanently isolated, as some commentators would have us believe."
Cameron unabashedly cast himself as a winner of the summit, proclaiming that he had single-handedly slashed 24 billion euros off the budget and delivered a real-terms decrease - the first ever for an MFF - that "the British public can be proud" of.
First, however, there were hours upon hours of bargaining, tweaking and "fine-tuning" as Van Rompuy tinkered away at a budget compromise that could gain unanimous approval.
The talks were "agonizing," Benedicta Marzinotto of the Bruegel think tank noted.
The 27 leaders only spent a few hours in the same room, with most of the negotiating happening in small groups, often involving heavyweights France and Germany.
Some leaders were reported to have slept in chairs as they waited for Van Rompuy to finally produce his compromise.
"The main problem: I never thought I would need a toothbrush," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite - a former EU budget commissioner who was involved in the negotiations for the last seven-year budget - told journalists at 4 am (0300 GMT) on Friday.
The press had to largely rely on sources and politicians’ Twitter feeds to figure out what the leaders were doing behind closed doors.
When Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo slipped into the press bar for a sandwich and a coffee, he was quickly surrounded by a scrum of journalists, but remained tight-lipped - venturing only the guess that the talks would last at least several more hours.
"It was an arduous, lengthy and laborious process," Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy later said.
French President Francois Hollande was reported to have snubbed Cameron at one point, failing to show up for a meeting with the British premier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
"Hollande was not even answering his mobile," one official told the Guardian newspaper.
But when all was said and done, leaders declared themselves satisfied with the outcome of their overnight marathon.
Merkel, Hollande and Rajoy all called the deal "good," Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti declared himself "happy," and Grybauskaite said leaders had done "what was possible and what was necessary."
But European parliamentarians disagree and have vowed to block the budget when the expenditures come their way for approval. Marzinotto deemed a rejection "unlikely," although she said the situation offers a "political chance" for the legislature.
On Friday evening, EU leaders were focused on entirely different priorities, however.
"I’m going to bed," Grybauskaite told journalists on her way out of the summit building.
"Maybe I’ll take a glass of champagne," Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen added. "I’m very satisfied."