European Union nations set to enter tough budget summit

BRUSSELS – Everyone’s drawing lines in the sand, but the leaders are so far apart they might as well be on different beaches.

The European Union heads into a critical summit today to hammer out a 1 trillion euro budget through 2020 – and it promises to be one of its most bitter fights in years.

Finding hard cash to prop up European unity has become a political quagmire for leaders facing angry, crisis-weary citizens at home. Complicating the task is that any one of the EU’s 27 member states can veto a deal, giving each tremendous negotiating clout, with even small Denmark able to thwart heavy-hitters Germany or France.

“There is a whole bunch of Tarzan-like chest-beating,” said Finland’s European Affairs Minister, Alexander Stubb.

It all leaves little hope for a quick solution.

“Now, it looks very unlikely that an agreement will be reached,” said Claire Dheret, a policy analyst at the European Policy Center.

At stake is a plan to divvy up the EU spending budget from 2014 to 2020. So far the EU’s executive commission has proposed a ceiling of just over 1 trillion euro, which would amount to a small increase. EU president Herman Van Rompuy meanwhile, is already seeking the cooperation of spending-shy countries like Britain by offering 80 billion euro short of that mark.

“With less money, we cannot do the same as before,” Van Rompuy wrote in the invitation letter he sent to the 27 leaders Tuesday, and his proposals would effectively cut the budget by up to 24 billion euro, compared with the 2007-2013 period.

Britain, ever the halfhearted EU member, wants to cut even deeper if possible – arguing that its beleaguered taxpayers shouldn’t have to shoulder the rest of Europe’s woes.

“If there isn’t a deal that is good for Britain, if there isn’t a deal that is available,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, “then there won’t be a deal.”

Leaders from Copenhagen up north to Madrid and Rome down south already are threatening vetoes for often opposing reasons, and the EU has said the summit might go three days and three nights.

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