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High stakes, low expectations

Neither Council nor Parliament has the appetite for a long, bruising budget battle.

Last Wednesday, the European Parliament finally had its say on the seven-year, €960-billion EU budget painstakingly agreed by the Council of Ministers. The Parliament, after due consideration, threw the budget out.

If EU institutions had attained a greater level of maturity, there would now follow a prolonged, high-stakes game of poker between the two bodies. Both would seek to rally public opinion to their respective cause before a budget deal was finally struck between them.

What we’ll get will probably be rather less than that. The most likely outcome is that the Council will offer minor concessions, such as allowing some mid-course corrections in the distribution of funding, and then get its way on the overall budget framework.

That outcome is probably the best that the EU can hope for, under the circumstances, and is certainly the one most beneficial to potential applicants for funding under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. If Horizon 2020 is to get going next January as planned, the rapid resolution of its budget is essential.

However, the dynamic that underlies this likely settlement is far from satisfactory. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty gave the Parliament more powers, including the power to veto the budget. These powers were vested in the Parliament for good reason. The EU, as envisioned by the Lisbon Treaty, cannot function without a credible, visible, democratic legislature. Some progress has been made towards this goal: in the regulatory sphere, for example, parliamentary scrutiny of bodies such as the European Medicines Agency has rendered them more publicly accountable than before. But in general, progress towards a genuinely effective parliament has been painfully slow.

Part of the problem lies in the European Parliament’s own hands. Its reputation is ill-served by the quality of contributions from some (not all) of its members, its occasional air of isolation and self-importance, and its wasteful journeys back and forth between Strasbourg and Brussels.

But a larger part of the problem lies outside, with the member states. Through the Council of Ministers, they continue to drive most of EU policy, more or less entirely subject to their perceived national interests.

It is time for the Council to show some magnanimity over the budget. It should concede ground and negotiate a deal that will allow some transfers between components of the budget, and facilitate a mid-term review. It should do so as quickly as possible, so that the Commission can get on with planning and implementing Horizon 2020 and other budget components.

The resulting budget agreement, as critics in the Parliament have rightly noted, will be too modest in scope and conservative in shape to meet Europe’s needs. But the alternative, of not having a budget at all, would hurt EU programmes and expose both Council and Parliament to a degree of derision—on the markets, and in the streets—that neither institution is well-positioned to bear.