Europe News

Public Anger Over Europe’s Budget, and Wine Cellar, Bubbles Before Talks

Amid wrangling over how much money the European Union spends at a time of grinding austerity across the Continent, Martin Ehrenhauser, an Austrian member of the European Parliament, lobbed a sobering question this summer at the union's Brussels bureaucracy: How many bottles of booze does it have stocked in its wine cellars?

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The answer, which took four months to deliver, revealed a grand total of 42,789 bottles of red, white and sparkling wines, plus nearly 2,000 more of spirits in the cellars of the European Commission and the European Council, two main pillars of the 27-nation bloc.

"I was shocked," said Mr. Ehrenhauser, an independent member of the European Parliament, who describes himself as a "friend of a common Europe" but a foe of its current spendthrift and often dysfunctional ways. "I had not expected that they would have so many bottles. They should be working, not drinking."

The overall Brussels booze bill, budgeted at only around $55,000 for this year, is a minuscule portion of total spending for 2012 of about $170 billion, most of which goes toward subsidies for farmers and development grants for poorer regions. And the wines purchased are hardly vintage grand cru: the most expensive bottle in the commission's cellar cost a little over $60, according to Maros Sefcovic, the union's commissioner for administration.

But as leaders from across Europe gather in Brussels on Thursday to haggle over more than a trillion dollars in spending over a seven-year period starting in 2014, widespread public anger over perceived extravagance when national governments are slashing their own budgets has helped fuel a mood of hostility toward the world's most ambitious and, until the debt crisis exploded three years ago, most successful experiment in economic and political integration.

This is particularly the case in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from implacably "Euroskeptic" politicians in his own Conservative Party, this week accused the union of "picking the pockets" of Britons. He has threatened to veto any new budget that does not at least freeze spending, and he indicated his support for a referendum that would give Britons a chance to decide whether their country should pull out of the bloc altogether. Such a dramatic and disruptive rupture, still unlikely but no longer unthinkable, has sharply raised the stakes in this week's budget negotiations between leaders.

But it is not just Britain that has its hackles up. Across much of Europe, views of the union and its Brussels administrative apparatus have soured. Eurobarometer, the public opinion monitoring arm of the European Commission, found in a survey conducted in May that "Europeans who are attached to the European Union are now in a minority." Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said they felt little or no attachment, up seven percentage points since 2010. In Britain, only 27 percent felt attached to the union.

Brussels officials acknowledge that they have an image problem, but they mostly dismiss it as a result of "misperceptions" of waste and exaggerated reports of bureaucratic red tape. Only 6 percent of all spending goes to the union's administrative machinery, staffed by 55,000 people, including 6,000 translators, mostly in Brussels. Draft budgets under consideration this week propose a 1 percent reduction in administrative costs. Britain wants deeper cuts, arguing that the costs, while small, are symbolically important.

Ahead of this week's negotiations, at least seven countries, mostly those that contribute more to Europe's coffers than they get back in farm subsidies and other payments, have already warned that they may veto a budget that does not give them a better deal. Among these is Austria, where, according to Mr. Ehrenhauser, who sits on the European Parliament's budgetary control committee, "there is a critical mass building against the European Union."

Instead of promoting the union's overarching goal of "ever closer union among the peoples of Europe," a goal enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the framing of budget priorities has tended to do the opposite, pushing rival national interests to the fore in bruising negotiations that take place every seven years to set a so-called multiannual financial framework.

"It is not a pretty picture," said André Sapir, a former adviser to the European Commission president who led a landmark study of the union in 2003 that proposed a host of changes to raise competitiveness and already sluggish economic growth. Among these was a proposed overhaul of the union's budget, which the study described as a "historical relic" rooted in the bloc's early years, when fear of food shortages still haunted a Continent recovering from World War II.

The rethink, which would have scrapped spending on agricultural subsidies, ran into heavy opposition and stalled. All long-term budget decisions require unanimous approval by the member states, a rule first established when the grouping, then known as the European Economic Community, had just six members, not 27. The power of veto makes any major change to spending all but impossible and entrenches the status quo, no matter how unworkable or unpopular.

"It is extremely difficult to change anything," Mr. Sapir said. "Everyone is always fighting at the margins over narrow national interests. They try to make sure they get money for their own countries and that cuts go to other countries."

This battle resumes in earnest on Thursday when Mr. Cameron, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and 25 other heads of government gather in Brussels. The European Commission initially proposed that the 2014-20 budget be raised by around 5 percent, but that idea was quickly dropped following loud protests in Britain and elsewhere.

Just as unpopular, however, was a budget plan then put forward by Cyprus, the tiny Mediterranean island nation that holds the union's rotating presidency. When the country's ambassador outlined a new budget plan this month in Brussels, the meeting, punctuated by protests, dragged on for four hours.

With the Cypriot plan shot down, Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium, the president of the European Council, stepped in last week with yet another proposal that would cut the spending ceiling by 75 billion euros, or about $96 billion. That was not enough to keep the British happy, and it cut farm spending too steeply for France, with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault dismissing the new blueprint as "in no way an acceptable basis for negotiation."

After months of arguments, two broad alliances have emerged. The first comprises countries like Britain, Germany and Sweden that are big net contributors and want to keep a tighter rein on spending. The second, known as the "Friends of Cohesion," after a class of development grants aimed at less wealthy areas, includes Poland, Spain, Portugal and others that want to make sure the union's largess does not dry up.

The gaps between the various sides are currently so wide that many now expect the meeting, originally scheduled to last just two days, to drag on through the weekend, and even then leaders may need to reconvene, probably early next year, to agree on spending cuts.

All the same, Mr. Van Rompuy's staff has already shown that deep cuts are sometimes possible.

In response to Mr. Ehrenhauser's query in Parliament, the European Council responded that its own spending on wine has dropped steadily over the past four years. After splashing out $115,000 in 2009, it will spend only $6,500 to replenish its cellar this year. Average consumption at its social events, the council said in a written response, "amounts to about one glass of wine per participant."

The European Commission, however, has been far less forthcoming. It told Mr. Ehrenhauser that it could not give a breakdown of spending in recent years on wine because that would require "lengthy research" and "it cannot consider doing this at the present time because of other priorities."