EU budget: Wanted - a Goldilocks recipe?

David Cameron carrying a ministerial red box in Brussels Image copyright Reuters

The EU is trying to cook up a "Goldilocks budget" - not too hot for the countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden who want to see spending frozen and not too cold for the countries of the South (Spain, Portugal, Greece) and East (led by the biggest net beneficiary Poland) who want to see spending on them maintained.

Yesterday's late night talks lasted little more than an hour and showed no sign of finding that recipe. One British source told me that the man in the chair, the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, doesn't have a plan and doesn't have a way to get there. The necessary preparatory work had not been done I was told.

When David Cameron arrived for a second day of talks on the EU budget he declared in a show of calculated grumpiness: "It isn't the time for tinkering. It isn't the time for moving money from one part of the budget to another."

The tinkering the prime minister was complaining about was the offer made last night to cut funds to the EU's poorer regions (so-called cohesion funds) a little less than originally proposed and cut subsidies to farmers (as ever the key concern of the French) a little less too.

Normally the way such competing demands are reconciled in Europe is by increasing the size of the pot - making the budget bigger to accommodate everyone's needs. That is not possible here, so last night's proposals were to be paid for by changing the mix of ingredients.

The European Commission's plans for an expanded fund to pay for infrastructure to link EU countries - roads, broadband and energy - was one easy target. It is clear that this is Van Rompuy's chosen approach - find a little more from that fund, a little more from administration (Eurocrat pay and pensions), a little more from here or there and hope that all 27 leaders agree it is acceptable, if not just right.

This is a problem of politics not economics. The numbers involved are not huge but the stakes are. That's why leaders are preparing for a long haul.

The Swedish Prime Minister has just said on arrival: "I am not in a hurry, it will take a long time."

Cooking up a recipe which satisfies so many different appetites can't be done in a hurry. Sadly for those waiting to see what emerges.