PM sets out stall ahead of summit
David Cameron was bandying billions in budget figures as an EU summit to agree future spending was delayed yet again in Brussels.
The Prime Minister held a series of private number-crunching meetings as chairman Herman Van Rompuy put back the start time in a bid to find a workable budget compromise with a chance of agreement.
Only Irish Premier Enda Kenny, currently holding the EU presidency, avoided the delay - he was still in his car on the way to Dublin Airport to fly to Brussels to join his colleagues as the latest timetable was announced.
Summit officials said the talks were now due to begin at 8.30pm Brussels time - five hours later than scheduled. "It now looks like Mr Kenny will still get here in time" said one official. When the meeting does start, Mr Van Rompuy is due to table figures for a new budget compromise, after taking soundings with the waiting leaders.
One early pre-summit gathering involved Mr Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. But French President Francois Hollande, also due to take part, let it be known after the meeting had started that he could not make it.
British Government officials denied it was a calculated snub, saying Mr Hollande had another meeting to go to. The British and French leaders last spoke about the EU budget, by phone, last month.
On Thursday evening, Mr Cameron separately exchanged budget chat with his Dutch, Swedish and Danish counterparts, as other leaders also broke off into groups - roughly splitting along north-south lines - the northern EU countries being most keen on deep EU budget cuts, and the southern member states, who benefit most from budget handouts, less keen.
Exact figures in play were being kept private, with Belgian Prime Minster Elio Di Rupo resorting to Twitter to suggest that, whatever the numbers were, they remained "unbalanced". On Thursday night, Commission officials pointed out that cuts had already been made in the original budget proposal and that the current figure on the table already amounted to a reduction in spending compared with the current seven-year budget period.
But the sheer complexity of the maths and the options - "payment" figures, "commitment" figures, and the choice of base year for the calculations - offers all leaders the chance to emerge with a deal they can "sell" to their domestic audiences. Allowing for current exchange rates, the opening bid on the table amounts to a budget proposal of 913 billion euro (£778 billion) for 2014 to 2020.
With corridor negotiations between various leaders still under way, British Government sources said Mr Cameron wanted to see a further cut of "ten of billions" off that figure. One Commission official acknowledged that, in place of the 913 billion euro figure the UK delegation "would like to see a number with an eight at the front". In sterling that would mean a maximum acceptable figure of £766.6 billion.