Cameron touches raw nerve

David Cameron

BRUSSELS - The latest European Union budget summit has brought that well-worn narrative of Britain versus France back into play, but there are fascinating signs of a more emotive battle going on beneath the surface.

That sub-text was less about whether the union's next seven-year budget would end up at euro 913bn or the euro 908bn eventually agreed, a small difference rendered even less significant when one considers that it is dwarfed by what national governments spend, but concerned whether UK Prime Minister David Cameron's recent call for reform - and re-negotiating UK membership - had gained wider traction.

Ending the marathon negotiation with a personal declaration of victory to reduce the budget while protecting the UK rebate, Mr Cameron was asked whether these tense hours of debate might inform his bigger agenda about reforming the EU and Britain's place within it.

"We formed a strong alliance", he said, and it could be seen as "part of the new settlement that we seek".

There are legions of people in the European set-up who find his calls for smaller budgets, and repatriated powers anathema. Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, allowed some of his ire about Britain's stance to burst into the open when questioned by BBC colleague Iain Watson at a press conference on Thursday night.

How could Britain opine on the next seven-year budget, asked Mr Schulz, when it might not even be a member of the EU by the end of it? For good measure he attacked George Osborne, the UK chancellor, for saying (in Mr Schulz's version of what was presumably a private conversation at the Davos economic forum) that he cared less about what the EU committed itself to spend than he did about what the UK actually had to cough up.

Casting doubt over whether the European Parliament would actually approve a trimmed budget once the national leaders signed off on it, the president implied that its members might come under such pressure to do so that they should be allowed to vote in secret.

The annoyance of Francois Hollande, president of France, at Mr Cameron's speech was also apparent to some. He cut a scheduled meeting with the British and German leaders and threatened to veto any budget that did not protect "agriculture and growth".

One person close to the negotiations told me, "he has become very emotional about it, and it may be in reaction to Mr Cameron's speech, that he sees himself defending the European status quo". Ending the summit he put a brave face on France's diplomatic reverse, calling it a, "good compromise".

It is a reasonable deduction that had the British leader's speech been greeted with ridicule or indifference across Europe, the denizens of the European apparatus would have reacted with cold disdain. But something seems to have worried them, and they will now be reading the runes of a summit that ended with an unprecedented decision to cut EU spending, trying to evaluate whether this is a one-off or a symptom of a more troubling shift in Europe's centre of gravity - a move in a more sceptic direction.

Of course it has been apparent for some time that the harsh austerity measures mandated by Germany and other northern European countries on the likes of Italy, Greece, and Spain have caused some deep resentment of the EU. It is a nervousness about what form these feelings might take that has caused Italy's Mario Monti (Mr Hollande's principal ally in trying to defend a higher EU budget) to warn about the "populist" tactics of his opponents in casting doubt about the necessity of such austerity.

However these southern critics are highly unlikely to side with Mr Cameron - except perhaps the ever mercurial Silvio Berlusconi - in arguing for a smaller Europe. The group that seems to be making people in Brussels nervous is "the parsimonious ones" as one French newspaper dubbed them yesterday.

Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands lined up with Britain on Thursday on the budget question, and Finland hovers on the fringes of this group. All of these countries have form in standing up against the "ever closer union": Sweden by voting in a referendum not to adopt the euro; Denmark by opting out of the Lisbon Treaty provisions on the single currency; and the Netherlands by voting against the European constitution in 2005 and more recently questioning the need to bail out the weaker eurozone members.

Germany's attitude proved critical to the question of whether this "parsimonious" group could win the day. Chancellor Angela Merkel had already shown her hand in wanting further cuts after the failure of November's summit. Although she did not side overtly with the UK, Sweden, Netherlands, and Denmark, her objection to the Franco-Italian counter-proposal doomed it.

Le Figaro, the French daily, on Friday evening reported the outcome as a, "double success for Mr Cameron". For France, it added, "this clash... hides a more worrying sub-text for the future: the proven paralysis of the Franco-German axis".

To be clear, Ms Merkel's assistance on the budgetary issue cannot be taken as a sign of support for Mr Cameron's broader platform of re-negotiation. But in the summit statements of the Dutch, and Swedes in particular he can take comfort that there is support on this wider agenda.

The Dutch parliament has scheduled a full day's debate on the implications of the British prime minister's Europe speech, something he was delighted to tell reporters at the end of the summit.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    #394 Chubby

    "...I'm still waiting for a sensible and intelligent comment in support of the EU..."

    --YOU !

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    The elephant in the room is agriculture. Until that is reduced to its proper place in the EU budget it remains the toxic heart of the EU. 65 years ago, Europe starved but now the issue is research, technology and competition with the aggressive emerging powers. For Europe to survive it must ditch its preoccupation with farming. It is a luxury we should never have afforded in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.


    Nothing wrong with one-on-one tuition, it can improve spelling, for example. I think you mean voila!


    Blimey, you were posting 12 hours ago. Clearly your comments haven't improved over time.

    ...I'm still waiting for a sensible and intelligent comment in support of the EU...

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.


    Oh no, that;s not right! Osbourne doesn't count in his fingers, that's outrageous!

    Hes not that numerate!

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    "The Dutch parliament has scheduled a full day's debate on the implications of the British prime minister's Europe speech"
    This debate was instigated by the compulsive schemer Wilders. I hope Cameron isn't pandering to the stirrers of the brown stuff - it'd be like pouring salt on a snail's back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    385 mudfish

    "Would you put your money into a bank where you got less out than you put in? No, of course you wouldn't nobody would be that stupid"

    But alas we were ! Nothing to do with the EU but our own government which encouraged us to invest our savings in pension funds to ensure a comfortable retirement and lost us nearly all of it.

    Would have been safer under the proverbial mattress

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    #388 GST

    "I am being offered payment not to post."

    -- I´ve only been threatened not to --

    #266 DH

    "No more of your racist anglophobic insults. They will be reported from now on. "

    --I´m jealous !

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    Why beat down on Cameron so much? It's quite obvious that he's as much a victim of the Eton-Oxford complex as the rest of us.

    They funnel rubbish up to us, via degrees in counting-your-own-fingers, through one-on-one tuition. And viola, Osbourne!

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    374. insert_name_here
    Anyone here not being paid to post?
    I am being offered payment not to post.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    367 insert

    "Paul Nuttall, UKIP's deputy leader, has attacked the proposals, which he said, violate the neutrality of the EU civil service turning officials into a "troll patrol" stalking the internet to make provocative political contributions "

    It seems hilarious for UKIP to condemn as 'troll patrols' EU attempts to counter its own relentless stalking of the media comments pages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    #370 Stewart

    " which in the fascist and soviet case included the expansion of their borders through the annexation of neighbouring territories."

    -and in Britain´s case to protect the Colonies and the Rights of Kings ?

    --Life was not that simple as you describe it in those days.

    Communism was the enemy of Royals and UK elite

    -NOT Fascism !

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Would you put your money into a bank where you got less out than you put in? No, of course you wouldn't, nobody would be that stupid.

    Oh hang on a minute, we've been doing that for years, we're in the EU!

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    I got another explanation of this apparently (and unexpectedly) easy Cameron's success at the summit. He paid for it in advance by pushing through Parliament, just few days ago, an important bill - seemingly irrelevant to the matter of EC budget, but actually very pro-EU - and then even Hollande could not resist too strongly such a gift..

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    #375 icebloo

    "Nobody in the EU takes weak, spineless, ditherting lightweight Cameron seriously...."

    -- Cameron is not the problem --its what he represents within Britain.

    This sounds similar ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    Dave Cameron's success at these negotiations come at a very convenient time. With the Eastleigh by-election at the end of this month, things could get interesting for New Labour and the Lib Dems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    ".. Cameron will come back to the UK and shout about it and take credit for it for months to come."

    Yes why not? Cameron stood up to the socialists in Europe who demand ever more of our cash and less democracy.
    Blair on the other hand wouldn't defend our rebate, opened the door to EU immigrants and can now be seen as a bit of a traitor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    375 Icebloo: well said cameron is only interested in winning the next election meanwhile investment in GBplc can go to pot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    374. insert_name_here
    "Anyone here not being paid to post?"

    Yes, I am. Never being paid for posts to BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    Alexander, 376
    I was having the same problem in Firefox but switched to IE and was able to view all comments. I think the problem arises because several comments there begin with an @ (specifically, 339, 343, 344 & 347) and, for some reason, that creates difficulties for some browsers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    Merchantman, 346
    The claim that there were Britons at the Sack of Rome in 390BC is one that surfaces in medieval British pseudohistories like that of Geoffrey of Monmouth 1500yrs later. It is not supported by the ancient historians such as Livy. If you found a website treating such pseudohistory as fact - like say this one: - you should not trust it as a resource


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