Britain heads new offensive against EU spending

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Britain rallied major partners for a fresh offensive Thursday to cut the 27-nation European Union's spending in line with a wave of national austerity policies, diplomats said.

Prime Minister David Cameron's drive to save EU cents emerged during a crunch two-day summit winding up Friday -- which in fact is dedicated to shoring up the euro after the turbulence that rumbled Greece and Ireland this year.

Cameron, who at the previous October summit also led a charge against EU spending, has penned a protest letter against swelling EU budgets that has won support from Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

A diplomat told AFP that the British leader was testing the waters on the sidelines of the summit talks to ensure the 27-nation bloc sticks to the same budgetary rigour as being enforced by London.

"In these hard times when people are feeling lots of pain, the EU should live within its means," another diplomat quoted the letter as saying.

The offensive is aimed at keeping a lid on spending as the EU next year begins negotiations for the 2014-2020 period.

But some are less than happy over the move.

"Anybody can write any letters," said Poland's Europe Minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz. "I don't think it's necessary, I don't think it's useful, I don't think it's going to show Europe some vision.

"We are not going to sign it."

Cameron however played a key role in trimming next year's budget -- totalling 126.5 billion euros (168 billion dollars) -- which was voted this week by the European Parliament.

The parliament initially wanted a six percent increase for 2011 -- to take into account new mega-policy deals such as the EU's new diplomatic service or costly nuclear energy research project ITER.

But that was before Cameron complained.

The final 2011 budget will be 2.91 percent higher than this year following weeks of heated negotiations between the assembly and EU governments.

In comments to AFP this week, Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski said "One has to be realistic. With less than one percent of European GDP, you can't carry out all the policies. It's unworkable and not a serious vision for Europe."

The current budget represents 1.23 percent of EU GDP, essentially made up of contributions from members.

In exchange for a lower spending increase, lawmakers wanted negotiations on ways for the EU to raise its own funds in the future, including a possible direct EU tax.

Britain and others categorically refused to be drawn into that debate and in the end lawmakers relented and passed the maximum budget increase that Cameron and his allies were willing to tolerate.

"We pumped our chest, and then we got scared of winning and stopped everything," said Green bloc leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

© 2010 AFP

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