Wednesday, November 30, 2005

As clear as mud

The Daily Telegraph's claims on the EU budget, spread over the front page of today’s edition have done little to add light to an increasingly complex situation.

Written by David Rennie, the Brussels correspondent, with Toby Helms, the paper has it that Blair is “ready to surrender EU rebate with no payback”. Such an outcome would hardly be a surprise, considering Blair’s firm “red lines” on the EU constitution, which became perforated lines, and then pink lines and then no lines at all. Blair, if nothing else, continues the dishonourable tradition of so many of our prime ministers, of talking tough and then giving way under pressure.

However, The Telegraph adds a novel twist, relying on unnamed "Whitehall sources" to suggest that Blair is planning to split the rebate into parts that he can defend as "fair" - including Britain's rebate from the Common Agricultural Policy - and others that are less easy to justify, including spending on enlargement.

By contrast, though, The Times has it that our beloved leader is holding firm on the rebate, and has indicated that he was ready to call a halt to next month's European Council, rather than compromise on the rebate.

That was this morning, and later in the day, with the Telegraph story clearly in mind, journalists tackled the prime minister’s official spokesman (PMOS) during the daily briefing. The PMOS was uncompromising, stating that the rebate was an "indivisible whole". Blair;s position on the rebate was in line with what he had said in the summer and in various speeches to the EU Parliament, Mansion House speech etc., etc. In other words, nothing had changed.

That did not stop Barroso pitching in today, telling Blair not to reverse the legend of Robin Hood by robbing poor new east European members to pay the rich in the European Union's budget.

Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said Barroso had had a long and "very frank" exchange of views with Blair, later telling a news conference, "You all know the old story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The president has made it very clear that he does not expect the British presidency to take the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, taking from the poor to give to the rich".

Meanwhile, the newly appointed German chancellor Angela Merkel has told her own told parliament that she was prepared to contribute to a reasonable and durable compromise that served all of Europe. "But one thing is also quite clear," she says. "The new government will emphatically pursue German interests. Given our budget position, we cannot accept any excessive financial demands in the light of our own problems."

All that makes the situation just about clear as mud. We are going to have to wait until Monday when the formal British proposal is presented to the meeting of foreign ministers of the EU member states, when we will then be able to pick over the bones of the deal.


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