The European Union‘s first high-level meeting since Brexit risks ending in acrimony, with member states at odds over how to cover a gaping budget hole caused by the loss of British contributions.
The extraordinary summit in Brussels to nail down a seven-year spending plan kicks off on Thursday afternoon, but no end time has been set and diplomats fear negotiations could drag on through the weekend. Even then failure remains the likeliest outcome.
The trillion-euro budget is a cornerstone of EU policy that lets farmers compete against imports from the developing world, helps poorer states catch up with the rich ones and underpins projects that bind the union together. But it’s also a lightning rod for the tensions running through the bloc and after three years of uncharacteristic unity during the Brexit negotiations, passions are now running high.
“There is a way forward to find an agreement during this summit,” French President Emmanuel Macronsaid on his way into the meeting, adding that he would spend as much time as needed to get an ambitious agreement. “This pathway can take a few days, a few nights, I am ready.”
The outcome of the battle will signal if Europe is prepared to spend more collectively to further its goals, whether it wants to prioritize innovation over handouts to traditional industries and whether it’s prepared to wield its financial muscle to force member states like Hungary and Poland to respect the rule of law.
Britain’s departure from the EU leaves a hole of at least 60 billion euros ($65 billion) in the budget that needs to be plugged by either cutting spending or making others pay more.
But the EU’s shifting priorities also require more money for issues like climate change and migration and those who gain from the traditional focus on agriculture and regional development are fighting to keep their benefits.
Essentially though, the EU is split into two basic camps: those who want to spend more, and those who can see they’ll get stuck with the bill.
The Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden have argued for keeping the spending ceiling at 1% of the EU’s gross national income and for a permanent system of rebates to limit their contributions. They want to focus on new priorities and to curb the outlay in traditional areas and have called for tougher conditions on adhering to the rule of law.
“Our countries are firm in our priorities. We cannot accept a drastic increase in our fees. We are willing to continue to pay significantly, but there are limits,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofventweeted after a meeting with the other three so-called frugal leaders. “It will be a tough negotiation.”
There are many legitimate concerns, but I am convinced that it is possible to make progress.