U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron arrived at a summit on the European Union’s budget as his Conservative lawmakers demanded a cut in the 27-nation bloc’s spending plan that they say is bloated.
Cameron, usually among the last to arrive at EU summits because he’s not part of a mainstream political grouping, set off from London for Brussels before dawn today to meet EU President Herman Van Rompuy, hoping to generate support for his call to freeze the bloc’s 2014-20 spending plan.
“These are very important negotiations,” he said on arrival in the Belgian capital. “Clearly at a time when we are making difficult decisions at home over public spending it would be quite wrong, it is quite wrong, for there to be proposals for this increased extra spending in the EU.”
British officials say they’re working on securing a deal at the summit that begins today and may continue into the weekend. The premier has nonetheless kept up a stream of anti-EU rhetoric, needing to placate euro-skeptic Tory lawmakers, some of whom want the U.K. to pull out of the union altogether. He said three days ago the EU needs to stop “picking the pockets” of a British public suffering from austerity measures at home.
“His people expect the impossible,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said in a telephone interview. “That’s the problem: they want him to fail. They don’t want him to bring back the deal that can possibly be done, because that will prove we can’t deal with the EU, and the only solution is to get out of it.”
After Cameron’s half-hour meeting with Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Barroso, the prime minister’s office said in a statement that “it was clear that there was a long way to go before we had a deal.”
It’s just under a year since Cameron was cheered by Tory lawmakers when he refused to join a German-inspired fiscal accord to rescue the euro at a Brussels summit. Most other countries went ahead with the agreement anyway.
Van Rompuy is proposing to cut the budget to 973 billion euros ($1.24 trillion), lower than the EU Commission’s planned 1.03 trillion euros and the figure for the previous seven-year period of 994 billion euros.
When asked whether he was pleased with the proposed cuts, Cameron said today, “No, I’m not happy at all.”
Cameron hit the phones before the summit to drum up support from other EU leaders. Other net contributors such as Germany and France also oppose an increase, and the premier has threatened a veto if he doesn’t get the deal he wants.
“I see a major threat,” Barroso told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, yesterday. “Compromises have to be constructive. They’ve got to be about strengthening Europe and not about pulling Europe apart.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday EU states may need to reconvene again in early 2013 to reach agreement.
Britain is not the only country to have threatened a veto. Latvia may also scupper negotiations if its interests are ignored, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said yesterday. The Danish premier, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is demanding a rebate.
For Cameron, anything less than a real-terms budget cut would not be enough to satisfy some of his party. More than 50 Conservatives joined forces with the opposition Labour Party in the House of Commons on Oct. 31 to demand he press for reductions in Brussels.
“Britain is facing 20 percent cuts in most government spending departments,” Tory lawmaker Mark Reckless said by phone. “I don’t see why the EU should be exempt from similar cuts.”
Cameron insists a freeze is more realistic, though he said yesterday he wouldn’t give up any part of the EU budget rebate that his Tory predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, secured in 1984.
The rebate acts as compensation to the U.K. because British farmers receive relatively little support under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, compared with similarly sized economies such as France. The latest figures -- from 2010 -- show Britain’s net contribution was 7.3 billion euros as a result rather than the 10.9 billion euros it would otherwise have paid.
“The rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher is an incredibly important part of Britain’s position in Europe and making sure we get a fair deal,” the premier told Parliament in London.
An opinion poll last week found that more than half of British voters would vote to leave the EU if a referendum were held. Fifty-six percent said they want the U.K. to go it alone, while 30 percent want to remain in the bloc, the Opinium Research survey for the Observer newspaper showed. Opinium questioned 1,957 adults between Nov. 13 and Nov. 15.
Conservative hostility to Europe isn’t confined to rank-and-file lawmakers. Two members of Cameron’s Cabinet, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, attended a 90-pound ($144) a head dinner on Nov. 19 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht rebellion, when a group of Conservatives defied their then leader, John Major, to vote against the creation of the EU’s governing treaty.
They applauded three speakers, including two serving members of Parliament, Bill Cash and Mark Pritchard, who called for a referendum to take Britain out of the EU. Cameron will use a speech next month to set out his view on the future of Britain’s relationship with the bloc.
“It may be that there is a parting of the ways and that the British public decides it is better off as an independent country,” said Reckless.