Ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels Wednesday, the ratification of the European Union budget looks unlikely. Should an agreement not be reached at next week's summit, a crisis would ensue.
Is Tony Blair listening to a different tune to the rest of Europe?
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw can expect a rough ride when he meets with his EU peers at a special "conclave" in Brussels Wednesday. The subject is his country's budget proposal for the European Union from 2007-2013. Straw had presented on Monday a budget plan drafted by his boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair, which would foresee a cut of some 24 billion euros ($28 billion).
"This is a wonderful proposal but only for Great Britain," said the Spanish finance minister Pedro Solbes caustically. Spain is not alone in criticizing Blair's proposal. Both old and new member states have harshly disapproved of Britain which holds the EU presidency until the end of 2005. The current suggestion has "little chance of being accepted" said Germany's finance minister Peer Steinbrück.
The situation is reaching critical proportions as heads from around Europe expressed their concern. French President Jacques Chirac spoke with Blair on the phone on Tuesday to say that the proposals "pose a problem" and that they "would lead France to agree to the same financial sacrifices" like the ones Paris rejected in June. That, it was clear, would not happen.
Blair feeling the heat from EU, new members
Just how euros should be redistributed in the EU is hotly disputed
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also immediately rejected the proposal, calling it unacceptable. Much the same came from capitals in central and Eastern Europe as they would bear the biggest brunt of the belt-tightening measures offered by London. Already confronted with the potential smaller budget last week during a visit by Blair, Baltic States' leaders said they could not support the British EU budget in the present form.
That was reconfirmed by Barroso after he met with Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on Tuesday. The EU President pointed out that Britain, whose current budget rebate would rise from five billion euros to eight billion in 2013, should take a "small step" and show more willingness to compromise for the sake of the new states in the bloc.
Countries like Estonia, Hungary and Poland are riding on the fact that a deal will be brokered. Ansip said that if the budget is not signed soon, then Estonia would have difficulties financing numerous projects.
Pessimism is not the law of the union
The Baltic States, here Tallin in Estonia, enjoy their EU status but are still dependent on subsidies
Besides Britain, wealthy, net contributors such as Germany, the Netherlands and Austria would benefit from the British budget. The tone of voice from these countries was correspondingly not one of prophetic gloom and doom.
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel called the proposal a "starting point" for negotiations. In Germany, the Christian Democratic parliamentary member for European Affairs, Matthias Wissmann, judged the suggestion to be a "positive signal" and that it would be a springboard for more serious discussions.
But on Wednesday, Jack Straw must face the fact that he will be bombarded with more criticism than praise as the EU seeks to come to a budget solution. In the eyes of Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen, the credibility and negotiating competency of the EU is at stake.