General Affairs Council
Ministers reiterate positions on 2014-2020 MFF
By Gaspard Sebag | Wednesday 30 May 2012
To quote Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski, the General Affairs Council meeting, on 29 May, ended “without breaking news”. On the basis of a holistic version, covering both the expenditure and the revenue side, of the Danish EU Presidency’s 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework (MFF) ‘negotiating box’, the ministers broadly reiterated their well-known positions.
Maintaining the official facade, Danish European Affairs Minister Nicolai Wammen expressed his hope that the MFF negotiations can end under the upcoming Cypriot EU Presidency. Several commentators believe that this goal is unrealistic and argue that early 2013 is a more likely date for concluding the talks. The slow progress is “normal” due to the current circumstances, according to one diplomat. Lewandowski agreed: “Everything is in the shadow of the crisis, everything is in the shadow of the results of the Greek elections”.
The Danish Presidency does not expect the discussion on the figures, both overall and for each heading, to progress under its leadership. Criticised for attempting to introduce a ‘top-down’ approach at the January General Affairs Council by kick-starting a debate on figures, Wammen had to backtrack: “The figures part will take place in second part of this year”. In any case, for this ‘figures discussion’ to begin the Commission’s MFF regulation proposal needs to be updated to take into account three elements beforehand: the spring macroeconomic forecast; new data concerning the regions; and the cost of Croatia’s accession, planned for mid-2013. Lewandowski said the Commission was “in the final stage” of preparation. He added that “Croatia is practically quantified and not very costly”.
Countless non-papers and room documents were circulated during the Council meeting. One non-paper, signed by seven member states (Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom) states that “the Commission’s [2014-2020 MFF] proposal is significantly in excess of what is needed for a stabilisation of the European budget”. Several of the seven restated their ambition to slim down the EU executive’s proposal by at least €100 billion. The major question mark is whether France, once it has defined its position concerning the long-term budget, will lend its weight or not to this group (see box).
On the opposite side is the Friends of Cohesion group, which broadly defends the Commission’s proposal in terms of overall level. In the context of the shift in policy direction from austerity towards austerity and growth operated at EU leaders’ level, this 15-strong group of states circulated a room document that defended cohesion policy as “a major tool for investment, growth and job creation”. Among the signatories, many criticised the strong focus of the better spending goal on cohesion and called for improved spending in all headings.
Open opposition to correction mechanisms, whereby some member states see their national contributions reduced, is mounting, with many others keeping their cards close to their chests. During the ministers’ meeting at least seven countries called for the abolition of these rebates (Spain, Hungary, Romania, Greece, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Bulgaria). This provoked the ire of the UK, which repeated it would not change its stance and defend until the end its abatement. On top of that, some others, such as Austria and Denmark, want a slice of the rebate cake.
“Spending must be uselful”
Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s new junior minister for European affairs, indicated that his country’s position on the MFF is “not fully” set in stone. No radical shift from the policy conducted under the previous government is expected, however, in light of the state of the public finances: “Spending must be useful”. France will oppose the reduction of direct payments for farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy.