A slurp of Cullen Skink
Can a slurp of Cullen Skink (a type of haddock soup, now you ask) and a glass of Sharpham Beenleigh (a fine Devon red, I'm told) lubricate the wheels of EU diplomacy?
That's what's on the menu of the European Council tonight in Brussels courtesy of Tony Blair who's sitting in the EU's big chair for a few more weeks. It's unlikely to prove enough to sate the appetite of the EU's leaders. They are likely to dine instead on Britain's reputation and her rebate.
Standby for reports of harsh words exchanged. So Europe heading for budget breakdown then? Well maybe but maybe not. Beneath the gloomy rhetoric on all sides I smell the possibility of a deal. Britain and France can, I believe, agree on a review of the EU budget. It will allow Britain to say that the there MAY be changes to the Common Agricultural Policy from 2008 (if you're an EU trainspotter that's before the end of the current EU budget deal in 2013) and France to say it MAY NOT.
Britain would have to agree to permanent cuts in the British rebate - something the Eurosceptic papers assume they have already offered but has not infact been tabled. The Central and East Europeans will need to be offered a little extra cash not in the form of a bigger budget but a bung here and a bit of what the Americans call pork there so that they can tell their electorates there has been no cut in the money they were offered when the last budget collapsed.
The only real obstacle is just how much more of the British rebate has to be given up. We say we're giving up 8 billion Euros. The French say we should give up 14 billion. I use the word "say" deliberately as how much we actually give up depends on how you measure what we spend on the EU. Believe it or not, Britain and France measure in different ways.
There's is also a difference between what you commit to spend and what you actually spend. Never mind the detail it just means that a Britain and France can't even agree on what they say we'll spend. Diplomats are not just haggling over cash but over the words that allow Blair and Chirac to sell back home what they agree to in Brussels.
Even if he can get agreement on all of this there is, of course, one problem. He will be negotaiting not just in Brussels and not just with EU leaders. Agreement will be needed from a crucial player who's in the United States.
His name? Gordon Brown.