Peter Hoskin

Victory or defeat?

Victory or defeat?
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What has David Cameron achieved in Brussels so far? In truth, it's fairly hard to tell. In a meeting with his European Council counterparts last night, our prime minister didn't get the "freeze or a cut [in the EU budget]" that he mentioned last weekend. But ten other countries, including France and Germany, have now allegedly hardened their resolve not to go beyond the 2.9 percent increase that they agreed back in August. A Downing Street spokesman explains that these countries will resist the usual compromise between their 2.9 percent and the European Parliament's demand for 6 percent, when the two sides meet over the next 21 days. So, in other words, ten countries are going to battle more stubbornly for the position that they already held – with no real guarantees that they'll triumph in the end.

Tory backbenchers and good swathes of the public will treat this outcome with cynicism – and understandably so. No.10 will say that it could have been worse. But, by Cameron's own yardsticks, it could have been better too. The Prime Minister must now hope that the final result is nothing higher than a 2.9 percent rise, otherwise last night's "victory" will develop a pyrrhic edge. But he must also turn his attention ahead, and to both the debate surrounding the Lisbon Treaty and the budget settlement for 2012-20. If Britain can fight – and fight effectively – on those two fronts, then there is a chance that Cameron can emerge from his dealings with the EU a net winner. But if he is seen to lose, then the anger of his backbenchers is only likely to swell and surge over the top. As always for a Tory PM, Europe is both an opportunity and a problem.

To finish, this vignette from the Times's write-up of last night's meeting (£) deserves repeating:

"Mr Cameron was also given a taste of EU-style negotiating tactics when Jerzy Buzek, the Pole who is President of the European Parliament, accused him of being 'anti-European' for calling for the freeze. Mr Buzek added: 'By cutting the EU budget we are cutting faith in Europe.'

Fresh from making huge domestic cuts, the Prime Minister retorted: 'I have just had to cut my police budget but that does not make me anti-police.'

He was backed by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who has introduced a fresh austerity package in Berlin, and reportedly said: 'I have just had to cut the German budget and that does not make me anti-German.'"