Member states are starting to set out their positions on the size and shape of the European Union’s budget in the coming years.
This is in anticipation of difficult negotiations, due to start next year, on the so-called Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MAFF) for the next seven-year period, which will begin in January 2014.
At last week's EU summit in Brussels, the leaders of the 27 member states agreed that the EU budget should in future "reflect the consolidation efforts being made by member states to bring deficit and debt onto a more sustainable path".
Establishing a link between national austerity measures and the EU budget process was described as "a significant breakthrough" by the British prime minister, David Cameron.
Cameron has said on several occasions that he would like to see a freeze or even a cut in the overall level of the EU budget. He believes that the EU institutions should join in with the efforts that member states are making to reduce public spending.
Addressing the House of Commons in London on Monday (1 November), Cameron declared: "Just as countries have had to change their financial plans because of the crisis – so the EU must change its financial plans too."
New member states oppose cuts
Now the 'new' member states that joined the EU since 2004 are beginning to make their views known on the sensitive questions that surround the future EU budget.
At a joint press conference in Warsaw yesterday (4 November), the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Poland insisted that they would strongly oppose any cuts to the part of the EU budget which provides financial support to Europe's poorest regions.
"While understanding the need for savings and tightening our belts, we won't agree for these to be made at the expense of the cohesion funds," declared Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister.
The cohesion funds - or structural funds - account for about a third of the EU budget. They are used to pay for a wide range of projects that contribute to economic growth - including transport infrastructure, environmental improvements and job training schemes. Some 82% of the money is reserved for the poorest regions, which are mostly found in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (see 'Background').
Tusk said that "the EU must still mean solidarity between countries [...] The new member states should not bear the costs of these necessary savings". He announced that the Visegrad group of countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - would coordinate their positions ahead of budget negotiations beginning in 2011.
Cautious approach to EU treaty
Both Tusk and his Czech counterpart Petr Necas also cautioned against rushing to amend the EU's Lisbon Treaty to create a permanent system to fight financial crises, given the political headaches such change would cause in many member states.
"Any change in the treaty must be very well thought out and argued," said Tusk.
Necas said changes would require "a complicated process of ratification" in Prague that could include, in the event of further powers being transferred to the EU level, a referendum.
Prague was the last capital to ratify the treaty in 2009 due to resistance from its Eurosceptic president, Václav Klaus.
Herman Van Rompuy, president of the EU Council, has been given the task of drawing up proposals to amend the Lisbon Treaty with the aim of reinforcing rules on national budgets to reduce the risk of financial instability, especially for the 16 countries using the euro.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)