Saturday, December 03, 2005

And so to that budget…

With a heavy heart, one trawls through the papers today, knowing – as the Financial Times puts it – that the deal is far from done. "When European leaders get sight of the formal British proposal on Monday, the real fight will be just beginning," it says.

And that is the size of it. For all the histrionics and yards of comment, the current spat on the budget is just the foreplay and it is not until the final European Council of the British presidency that the member states will really get down to business.

Nevertheless, the FT makes a fist of it, reporting that Blair "prepares to share pain of deal", noting that he and British diplomats are preparing for what one official described as "a dreadful two weeks". Without naming it, the FT also records that one tabloid has called his plan "The Great Betrayal", and makes the obvious point that it will need to satisfy numerous heads of state who have their own domestic agendas to defend.

One should never make fun of peoples' names (er… why not) but the Scotsman sums it all up in the reporter's name, their political correspondent who goes by the rather appropriate name of Gerri Peev.

Headlining her piece, "Blair comes under fire for plan to give 15 percent off EU rebate", the paper – in common with most others – calculates that Blair's largesse will cost us, the British taxpayers, a cool £1 billion a year. Needless to say, Blair is denying that the concession amounted to a betrayal, stressing that everyone had to pay for enlargement as it would benefit the whole EU. "The question is making sure we don't pay more than our fair share, but making sure we do pay our fair share," he says.

The paper records that initial resistance from the poorest EU members appears to be thawing, quoting Polish prime minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, saying: "We are nearing a proposal which is not yet ideal but much better than the one proposed informally [of a 10 per cent structural fund cut]."

The Beeb thinks that, despite Blair’s manoeuvring, the UK may not get the deal, quoting the lad Douglas Alexander, the Europe minister as it source, adding a juicy quote from Lib Dim leader Charles Kennedy who – always ready for a sound-bite – warns that Blair is "on a hiding to nothing".

It is left to the Telegraph to suggest that this is all a Machiavellian plot, with Blair and Brown aiming to make France the EU villain, all part of a "dramatic move to isolate France in the EU budget row". The prime minister and the chancellor are insisting that "reform of Europe's bloated farm subsidy regime" - which France opposes - is a top priority for the EU and world trade. Now there's novelty for you.

The Times resorts to a rather understated – even pedestrian – headline, stating flatly that "Discussion over £3bn rebate leaves Blair in a tight spot". Tight spot? Well, that's one way of putting it, except that is how the Blair himself sees it, phrasing which he articulated when he met the leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, prompting a warning from him that they could miss the boat.

Not so much "spots" but "corners" is the Independent line, its headline having Blair painting himself into one, but the Guardian takes a more sympathetic view, citing Blair's claim that the £1 billion rebate cut is a price that must be paid. If Blair was paying it, all very well, but there is the tad inconvenient fact that it we that pick up the bill.

And so much for the reporting. The drag is we go through it all again on Monday when the details of the plan are finally revealed, and then again on 15-16 December when it finally goes to the European Council. Until then, as the FT so rightly said, the fight hasn't even begun.


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