EU Budget Battle Could Undermine its International Ambitions

EU’s heated budget negotiations risk producing a compromise at the expense of its longer-term international agenda.

Expert comment Published 17 July 2020 Updated 10 March 2021 2 minute READ

Alice Billon-Galland

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) talks with French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and President of European Council Charles Michel (R) during an EU summit on 17 July 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) talks with French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and President of European Council Charles Michel (R) during an EU summit on 17 July 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images.

With all EU economies still reeling from COVID-19, the ongoing heated deliberations on the bloc’s next budget, which will determine the amount of money matching its priorities for the next seven years, have taken on an urgency rarely felt in Brussels.

Relying in part on an unprecedentedly large volume of jointly issued debt, the European Commission’s plan for a €750 billion coronavirus recovery instrument is embedded within a revamped proposal for the EU’s long-term budget, of €1.1 trillion for the 2021-27 period.

Now the ball is in the member states’ court. All seem to agree that getting the EU budget right is crucial to fostering an economic recovery and ensuring the Union is on the right track towards its long-term pre-COVID objectives, from increasing its strategic autonomy to reaching climate neutrality by 2050. However, stark differences persist as to what that means in practice.

Most of the core divisions predate the pandemic’s outbreak. In a special European Council meeting in February, leaders failed to find common ground on the Union’s first post-Brexit budget. Net contributor countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands — the so-called ‘Frugal Four’— refused to agree to higher overall spending and instead advocated for cuts in the Common Agricultural Policy or cohesion funds, meeting the resistance of states like France and Portugal.

These early divisions foreshadowed the risk of a budget compromise that would leave little space for new policy priorities. The COVID-induced economic crisis has made a traditionally fraught political process even more difficult, putting the squeeze on what were previously priority areas of funding.

The Frugal Four agree on the need for the coronavirus recovery plan but vehemently oppose the volume of grants or the issuance of too much common debt in the proposed instrument, reflecting the unpopularity of these proposals with their domestic audiences. Hungary has also threatened to derail progress on the EU’s rescue plan if rule of law criteria are weaved into mechanisms for the allocation of EU funding.

As European leaders reconvene at the 17-18 July Council meeting, EU Council President Michel proposed a revised ‘negotiating box’ in preparation for the discussions. The document, which tries to bridge these intra-bloc divisions, bolts the demands for short-term recovery onto the EU’s longer-term ambitions. For instance, it sets an increased target of 30 per cent of funding to go toward climate-related projects, which is necessary for the Union’s green transformation. It also retains the link between the rule of law and EU funding — despite Budapest’s opposition — which is critical for the bloc’s internal accountability and transparency, and external credibility. Furthermore, it proposes a set of new mechanisms through which the EU can sustainably raise its own revenue, including a plastics levy as well as more controversial carbon border tax and digital levy.

Yet in several other critical ways, Michel’s proposals fall short. This is particularly true for some of the more ‘geopolitical’ goals of the Union, as previously expressed by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, or the repeated calls by the Union’s high representative that the EU should learn to use the language of power.

For all the rhetoric around the EU’s need to boost its ability to act more autonomously in the field of security and defence, reductions in important thematic programmes in this domain could result in a critical loss of momentum, if confirmed. For instance, in Michel’s proposals, flagship defence initiatives such as the European defence fund and the military mobility plan are facing cuts of about 39 per cent and 74 per cent respectively (to some €7 billion for the former and €1.5 billion for the latter) compared with the initial Commission proposal of 2018.

Moreover, the tragic developments at the Greece-Turkey border in the beginning of the year might have brought migration back to the forefront of the EU’s attention, but the overall funding for migration and border management is also significantly lower compared to initial proposals. This serves as another example of a discrepancy between the figures on the table today and those that the EU commission had previously regarded as necessary to address the challenges the bloc faces.

Similarly, under the Council president’s latest proposal, the combined funding allocated for the EU’s external action (under the ‘Neighbourhood and the World’ heading) is lower than the figures in the Commission’s May announcements – from €118.2 billion to €113.9 billion overall. This represents an increase compared to the previous EU budget, but it is not in line with the elevated ambitions recognized by the Commission in May, which have only been made more compelling by the pandemic.

Brokering a deal in EU budget negotiations has always been a brutal affair, requiring sacrifices and compromise under the pressure of a ticking clock. 2020 was never likely to be an exception to this rule; but the pandemic has complicated the politics and raised the stakes.

The risk is that the budget negotiations lead to a compromise which, while delivering a historic coronavirus package, does not adequately support some of the key elements of the Union’s long-term agenda, especially its international ambitions.