Spin or win? Cameron claims victory in Europe

By Ian Dunt

The Downing Street spin operation is frantically trying to present a mild rise in the UK’s EU budget as a victory for the prime minister.

David Cameron managed to limit plans for a 5.9% rise to 2.9% last night, after a round of negotiations.

Mr Cameron insisted he had managed to fight off an unreasonable increase in the budget and that 13 other European leaders had agreed that the rise would not exceed the current level next year.

“I’m not overclaiming for it but instead of 5.9% it’s 2.9% and for the future there’s a very clear link between the EU and what member states are doing themselves,” he said.

Eurosceptics branded the result a failure dressed up as a victory. The UK will still have to pay a further £435 million to EU coffers – some of which is intended for an increase in the hospitality budget – just as a brutal series of spending cuts are wreaking havoc domestically.

It also falls far short of Downing Street’s original effort to freeze any rise in the EU budget.

Last August, Britain filed to join France and Germany in voting for a 2.9% rise because it was still campaigning for a complete freeze.

There were reasons for Downing Street to be cheerful, however. Officials believe they have created a consensus whereby the EU’s budget should reflect the economic activities of member states.

The reduction on the original 5.9% figure and the decision of ten European countries to back Mr Cameron helped him counter Labour accusations that his disapproval of the European project prevented him from working with other European leaders.

Downing Street was also keen to highlight the British opt-out from potential sanctions established as part of new structural reforms aimed at averting another financial crisis.

Leaders agreed to give the EU power to check national budgets and set up a fund designed to help the euro in times of crisis.

The moves are a result of widespread sentiment in Europe that the entire project stood at the brink of collapse as Greece, and then nearly Spain, fell into chaos.

A 440 billion euro fund was set up to bail Greece out and this fund has now been made permanent.

But the fund contradicts the Lisbon treaty, which bans member states from bailing each other out, meaning it will need to be amended.

Such language sends a shiver of fear down the backs of those in British government, who know Mr Cameron has pledged a UK referendum if there are any other constitutional changes at EU level.

But because it is out of the eurozone, Downing Street is insisting such a move would not affect the UK.

The event, which ends later today, was Mr Cameron’s first big test on the continent and the Downing Street spin machine was keen to highlight where it went right.

“The prime minister secured three important results this evening,” a Downing Street spokesperson said overnight.

“First, he secured support from ten other member states for the position that the 2011 EU budget should increase by no more than 2.9%, putting a stop to the European Parliament’s bid for a six per cent increase.

“Second, in relation to Europe’s economic governance arrangements, he secured beyond any doubt a full British opt-out from possible sanctions on individual member states and established that any possible future treaty change would not affect the UK.

“Third, he secured an unprecedented agreement by establishing the principle that the EU budget should in future reflect the spending cuts being made by national governments.

“Tonight the Prime Minister has delivered an important first step towards ensuring that the EU gets a grip on its finances for the future.”

But many figures in Mr Cameron’s party are increasingly uncomfortable with the moderate tone the government is adopting towards the EU.

While the party is now as resolutely eurosceptic as it ever was, coalition with the Liberal democrats, the most pro-european of British political parties, had forced ministers to adopt a decidedly moderate approach to the institution.