- Europe's World
- By Petra De Sutter
They came. They talked (uninterrupted for 30 hours) and then the 27 EU leaders stalked off, tired, distracted, irritated, and without agreement on the EU’s new seven-year budget.
No worries. They’ll be back soon enough. They always are. Shadow-boxing over the Multiannual Financial Framework is a depressing EU tradition. The clock is always ticking, but what’s the rush?
Also, keep in mind that a budgetary thumbs up by the 27 leaders isn’t all there is. The European Parliament must also have its say.
It will take time and it will be tedious. But unless there’s a black swan lurking in some nearby Brussels pond, it should all go according to a well-honed script.
But there are also nasty nationalists and anti-establishment populists breathing down mainstream politicians’ necks
Reader, if my memory serves me right, this is what we can expect:
First, there will be more high-level temper tantrums, more drama, more all-night theatrical horse-trading, more scary talk of EU ‘horror scenarios’. The fat lady will take her time before she sings.
The Commission will rightly warn that it’s now or never. Europe can’t stand up to the mighty US, assertive China, resurgent Russia, nationalist Turkey and so on without more money for ‘Geopolitical Europe’, more cash for the Green Deal, more resources to back Europe’s new love affair with the ‘Language of Power’.
The public does want ‘more Europe’, the politicians want more money to keep out refugees and migrants and everyone wants extra funds for Europe’s defence and security.
But there are also nasty nationalists and anti-establishment populists breathing down mainstream politicians’ necks. So, standing up for ‘The National Interest’ rather than the ‘Common European Good’ can bring in some more desperately-needed votes.
Europe’s new fault lines are so much more lyrical and evocative
That’s a little unfair. Some of the EU-27 do nurture a European Dream. Some have ambition, can see beyond the next election and aren’t afraid of showing a bit of dare-do ambition. Count them slowly on the fingers of one hand. Make that half of one-hand.
Second, pay attention to the new EU divides. Forget the rich and the poor countries, the north and the south, the east and the west, the net contributors and the net beneficiaries. Europe’s new fault lines are so much more lyrical and evocative.
I’m quite taken with the ‘Friends of Cohesion’ and their calls for fairness and solidarity – including from Hungary’s fairest-of-them all Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – but it’s the self-righteous and high-handed ‘Frugal Four’ that have captured my imagination.
They may be penny-pinching and a tad mean but their Dickensian flair and eloquence cannot be faulted. “Now that we have a smaller union of 27 member states, we simply have to cut our coat according to our cloth,” Austria’s Far Right-flirt Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz told the Financial Times. Never mind that it’s a nice big piece of fabric – but, hey, who’s measuring?
Although there is a difference between the demands from the number-crunching ‘Frugal Four’ and the solidarity-seeking ‘Friends of Cohesion’ – it isn’t huge
Third, spoiler alert. Finally, at the eleventh hour, there will be a carefully-crafted, endlessly horse-traded, so-very-fragile compromise, allowing all member states to claim a victory that everyone will hail but no one will really understand.
The message of EU success/triumph will be passed on breathlessly by the long-suffering Brussels press corps, by now knackered by the unending ‘on- and off-the-record briefings’ which have been keeping them on their aching feet for too many hours. In exchange, they receive mere snippets of information gleaned from a few unintelligible SMS messages and incoherent tweets. It’s a tough life.
But their articles will be published. The farmers in the streets will go home, their tractors back in the fields, where they belong. The spotlight will move to the European Parliament and the circus will start all over again. But without the same degree of excitement. Note from and to editors: quotes from national leaders make the headlines, those from members of the European Parliament get lost in translation.
Fourth, yes this is all about money. A lot of money – so much, in fact, that I can’t figure out how many zeroes there are in one trillion. But, seriously, the EU budget is relatively small compared to the 27 countries’ annual expenditures and the discussion seems to be about whether EU countries will pay a maximum of 1% or a tiny little bit more of their annual gross national income (GNI) into EU coffers.
Circle back and history shows that the Commission originally proposed a 1.11% of GNI contribution, EU Council President Charles Michel’s proposal puts the 2021-2027 budget at 1.074% of the EU’s gross national income (GNI) and although there is a difference between the demands from the number-crunching ‘Frugal Four’ and the solidarity-seeking ‘Friends of Cohesion’ – it isn’t huge.
And while Britain’s exit from the EU means there is an annual budget hole of about 10 billion euros that needs to be filled, that too isn’t that huge.
To be taken seriously worldwide, the EU must also be able to curb the excessive anti-liberal tendencies of some of its member states
Finally, despite the drama – and elements of farce – make no mistake, the EU budget counts. The EU needs to spend more on the green transition, advanced technology, R&D and business innovation. Farm subsidies and regional aid programmes need to be pared down. Europe’s future depends on it.
To be taken seriously worldwide, the EU must also be able to curb the excessive anti-liberal tendencies of some of its member states. And what better way to do this than by linking some budget funds to respect for the rule of law?
So, there is indeed much at stake. But we are in safe hands. Charles Michel’s wise grandmother has reportedly told him that “to succeed you have to try”.
The EU Council President will therefore keep trying, believing that despite the public bluster, demands and threats, every EU leader is at heart a committed European.
If that’s true, fingers crossed, we may still see some uplifting EU glory days.
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