After the failure of the EU budget summit, almost everyone is blaming the British prime minister. But the critics are oversimplifying the situation, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.
The fresh shirts stayed in the suitcases. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy had asked the 27 heads of state and government before the special summit to pack three shirts, with the anticipation that the negotiations would last three days. And Austria's chancellor, Werner Faymann, had even said that he was prepared for a marathon summit that could last until Monday. But the summit ended up playing out differently, with the EU leaders heading home before the weekend after just two days of talks.
From the very beginning, the heads of state and government had demonstrated remarkable composure when it came to the question of the summit possibly failing. Many EU leaders thought that it wouldn't be so dramatic if an agreement wasn't reached - after all, there's always next year.
In terms of the timing, the summit's failure to reach an agreement really is not so bad. The EU still has an entire year to adopt a budget, since the seven-year financial period in question does not begin until 2014. But taking comfort in this thought would be to misjudge the situation. The political balance of power should not necessarily be expected to shift in the coming year. Worse yet, the opposing sides actually dug in their heels on their conflicting positions during the summit's two days.
Even before the negotiations began, many member states threatened to use their veto, creating a heated atmosphere from the very start. The threats were made both by those who supported cutting the budget and those who opposed austerity. How can common ground be found under such circumstances? The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, staked out the position of the legislature early on. Schulz said that parliament was unlikely to support a compromise which is too far removed from the European Commission's original proposal.
David Cameron as a scapegoat
It will be difficult for many of the heads of state and government to compromise on their inflexible positions. Yet it is already clear that, if ultimately there is no agreement on a budget, British Prime Minister David Cameron will be singled out as the scapegoat. Cameron did take his demand for budget cuts further than the other EU leaders. And he also managed to create bad blood by obstinately insisting on keeping Britain's highly discounted EU membership contribution.
But one had the distinct impression that other net contributors to the EU budget willingly hid behind Cameron. They seemed secretly happy that at least someone had the courage to be unpopular. The British prime minister is now more of an outsider than he was beforehand - but the others need him. After all, the budget has to be decided on unanimously. If the other member states do not reach some sort of compromise with Cameron, then he will indeed have to use his veto - otherwise the prime minister would lose face at home in Britain.
If the gridlock dos not change by next year - and that appears to be a distinct possibility - then the EU will have to live with a yearly budget. The consequences would be more serious than many think. There would be bargaining every year instead of every seven. And above all, it would be difficult to plan ahead. What investor wants to partner with Brussels on large multi-year infrastructure projects, when it's unclear whether or not the EU co-financing will materialize from year to year? Furthermore, British public opinion would be pushed even further in the direction of leaving the EU.
Right now, Germany shares more interests with Great Britain than it appears at first glance. The British stand for frugality, pragmatism, free trade and openness to the world. Meanwhile, the weight of the southern countries - led by Hollande, Monti and Rajoy - seem to have moved the EU in the opposite direction. And that's why the British counterbalance cannot hurt.