MEPs ready to fight against member states on EU budget

European Parliament co-rapporteur for the Multiannual Financial Framework Jan Olbrycht (Poland, EPP), during a meeting of the Budget committee. [European Parliament]

The European Parliament will not accept a “take it or leave it” agreement on the EU’s next long term budget (2021-2027), co-rapporteurs Jan Olbrytch and Margarida Marques have told EURACTIV. 

Olbrytch, a Polish lawmaker from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), and Marques, a social democrat (S&D) from Portugal, responded to EURACTIV in separate interviews.

But even though the two weren’t in the same room, there was no major divergence between them, reflecting – with some nuances – the strong unity lawmakers have kept on budgetary matters.

Last week, the European Parliament and EU national representatives in the Council of Ministers reached agreement on the EU’s 2020 budget. That battle was widely considered as a forerunner for a much bigger fight, on the EU’s seven-year budget for 2021-2027, known as the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF).

EU lawmakers are suspicious of the Council’s negotiating tactics.

“We have the impression since the beginning of the negotiation that they will come one day with a compromise, they will put it on the table and they will say ‘take it or leave’,” Olbrycht explained, but they do not seem to recognize that the Parliament can block it, he pointed out.

“The Council cannot afford to have an internal negotiation and, in the end, say, voilà the MFF,” Marques added.

If they come with a proposal that is not acceptable for EU lawmakers, “the Parliament will be ready not to give its consent,” the Polish MEP warned.   

“It’s not that the Parliament tries to be as important as the Council. We are trying to be absolutely pragmatic,” Olbrycht explained.

For Marques, the content of the agreement is paramount. “We cannot sacrifice the content to the respect of the calendar,” the Portuguese MEP argued. “We are aware of the urgency of having a political agreement but we need good programmes as well,” she explained.

The MFF is not only about money, Olbrycht added. “The MFF is about the future of the European Union,” the veteran Polish MEP insisted. “Populism is growing, people are losing trust. We have to be very clear and say what we can and cannot provide,” he stressed.

“We want to respond to the expectations of citizens that have been flagged during the electoral campaign in all member states: climate change, digital, convergence, inequality, democracy… The Parliament has to give an answer considering that we are here because citizens voted for us,” Marques said. 

EU faces budget deadlock as national positions drift further away

The Commission’s proposal for the EU’s new long-term budget has been caught in the crossfire as net contributors criticise the idea of having to pay more while a number of southern and eastern member states have joined forces to oppose planned cuts in traditional policies. 

Council responsibility

In its proposal for a new long-term budget, tabled in May 2018, the European Commission included new priorities alongside agriculture and regional cohesion, which are currently the two biggest.

Those included combating climate change, managing migration and boosting research and innovation, which all got a funding boost under the Commission’s draft. 

For the European Parliament, maintaining proper funding for traditional policies and investing in new ones requires member states to raise their national contribution to 1.3% of Gross National Income (GNI). This is up from the Commission’s proposed 1.1% while some member states like the Netherlands and Germany are not willing to go beyond 1%. 

Olbrycht called on the capitals to be responsible and live up to their commitments.

“We cannot agree to do something and not guarantee the money because it is not responsible,” the EPP negotiator said. “If we decide to do something, we have to find the money for it, either through the social contributions or own resources.” 

MEPs urged the Council and the Commission to come up with a proposal for new sources of funding if they are not ready to increase the national contributions. “We said that if there is no progress in own resources, the Parliament will not be ready to accept the MFF,” Olbrycht warned. 

“We need a political agreement for own resources,” Marques argued, “I don’t think this door has been closed just yet.”

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Von der Leyen promises 

The stalemate in the EU negotiation comes in the midst of a renewal in the EU’s leadership. Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk will leave the Commission and European Council presidencies respectively on 1 December and Brexit is still a question mark. 

The ambitious programme presented by Commission president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen convinced a slim majority of MEPs to support her in a July confirmation vote, the two MEPs said.

But the battery of initiatives she presented in July all require funding, they warned.

“She has made commitments here that she must respect,” Marques insisted. “For these initiatives, new money is needed,” the S&D co-rapporteur explained. 

“It was very clear for us by listening to her proposals that this cannot be done with the money which was proposed by the Commission in May 2018,” Olbrycht pointed out. 

Neither Von der Leyen nor her Commissioner-designate for Budget, Johannes Hahn, have clarified so far how those will be funded.

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The impact of Brexit 

The UK’s decision to leave the EU will leave an important gap in the EU’s next seven-year budget as the British remain one of the biggest contributors to the common pot. The Commission estimates the hole at about €13 billion per year. 

To compensate for the UK’s departure, and since new own resources have not been created, member states were asked to increase their national contributions to the budget.

The Commission’s decision to put those contributions in figures this early in the negotiation took the Parliament negotiators by surprise. 

“What was the political reason to dot?” Olbrycht wondered. “Probably it was a way to provoke the member states to go faster, to react, but I did not notice a real change of attitude,” he further reflected.

But instead of that, “it created a lot of emotions” and further deepened the differences among member states, the Polish MEP said.

Nevertheless, Marques considered that “these figures help us to show that the first beneficiary is the European Union and the European citizens and allow us to have a more transparent and serious negotiation.”

However, net contributors to the EU budget, such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany or Ireland, could use Brexit to argue for a smaller contribution, MEPs believe. “That’s why Brexit can be a very important factor in the whole debate,” Olbrycht explained. 

Marques also recalled that the negotiation does not end up with the final figure put on the seven-year budget. The Parliament, she pointed out, is also co-legislator on the regulation governing the execution of the programs.

Without a final number and a clear distribution of the budget, lawmakers cannot finalise the applicable regulation to the different programmes. 

Because a political agreement on the MFF seems unlikely by the end of the year, “we have asked the Commission for a contingency plan” to be part of the annual budget for 2021, Marques explained, and avoid uncertainty for direct beneficiaries.

Negotiating deadlock

The European Parliament has stuck to its guns after the May EU elections and wants to move forward into the budget negotiation as swiftly as possible.

“A new Parliament, with a new legitimacy after the European elections, has confirmed the position of the previous Parliament,” Marques said.

According to the S&D negotiator, the president of the institutions, David Sassoli, has sent letters to the Finish and upcoming Council presidencies, urging them to work towards a deal as soon as possible.

The negotiators admitted being in informal contact with like-minded countries as well but recalled that the Council decision on the budget is taken by unanimity.

“Unanimity means they will have to find a compromise,” Olbrycht pointed out, showing he understands how difficult those negotiations will be for the 28 EU member countries.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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