As expected, the European Council did not reach an agreement on the 2007 – 2013 budget for the European Union.
In itself, this is neither a surprise nor in itself a crisis. A few months ago, no one really expected even a chance of a deal already at this meeting. And there is ample time before 2007 to take the crucial decisions.
Indeed, the soap opera of budget battles is an integral part of the five-year routine of European integration. This time, there was for the first time the need to reach agreement between no less than 25 member countries – five years ago it was ”only” 15 that had to agree.
If there is somewhat more of a crisis its due to the acrimonious words exchanged between some of the leaders after the meeting. It seems as if Luxembourg chairman Jean-Claude Juncker deliberately played in order to get UK Prime Minister Tony Blair into a corner, then to blame him for the failure.
These things happen. I vividly remember the high tensions around the European Council meeting in Corfu in June 1994 as the then twelwe Prime Ministers and Presidents – with some observers like myself – failed to reach agreement on a new President of the European Commission. I can testify that the mood around the dinner table during the discussions that evening was anything but good.
But it passed. A couple of months later a solution was found, and the common interest in moving forward prevailed.
The same is likely to happen now. As Peter Mandelson in the European Commission noted, there ”will be many of us working hard to make sure that there’s a proper debate and that Europe and its budget emerges, not unscathed, but in a better, improved form.”
There are positive things that should be noted.
The ten new member countries demonstrated a commitment to the European Union that put the money bickering of some of the older ones to shame. As the PM of Poland Marek Belka noted after the discussions, ”nobody will be able to say that for Poland, the European Union is just a pile of money.”
Obviously, there were others that saw it mostly as ”a pile of money”.
This will undoubtedly influence the debate in the months ahead.
Now, the torch will pass from Luxembourg to the successive presidencies of the United Kingdom, Austria and Finland. In a formal sense, the political focus will shift from Luxembourg to London, Vienna and Helsinki.
But the real attention shift is likely to be to Berlin. With an election likely on September 18th, it is highly likely that the German Chancellor at the next European Council meeting will be the CDU leader Angela Merkel.
It’s new signals from a new leadership in Berlin that is likely to create new openings and perhaps even a new impetus for the process of European integration.
Europe is waiting for Angela.