Brussels delays budget reform talks
An open public debate on the EU budget's reform, launched last September, has been given two additional months, fuelling speculations that Brussels is trying to avoid a negative impact on the Lisbon Treaty's ratification in Ireland.
"The public consultations were planned to end on 15 April. This has been extended until 15 June," European Commission spokesperson Christina Arigho told journalists, citing "a lot of inputs coming in" as a reason for the delay.
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The commission's budget review 2008-2009 is to take a fresh look at the best way of shaping the EU's future spending. It is also intertwined with a controversial "health check" on the common agriculture policy.
Some diplomats suggest that the new time frame comes as a result of the EU tiptoeing around Ireland, as the country plans to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on 12 June.
A controversial debate, pointing to the possible cuts in farm subsidies, could upset the country's influential farmer base.
Irish farmers are already reluctant to throw their weight behind the EU treaty as a result of the current global trade talks, which they fear could result in a less beneficial set-up for them. The European Commission is conducting the talks for the EU as a whole in this area.
"Some budgetary reforms may be difficult for some countries. Perhaps, it is better not to debate them in the open before the treaty is ratified," an EU diplomat was cited as saying by Reuters news agency.
But the commission spokesperson refused to link the two-month delay in the public consultations on EU budget to the Irish referendum.
"These reforms were presented well before we knew the timeframe for the treaty ratification," she said, adding that there is "no rush" since the specific proposal by EU budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite is only expected to come out at the end of 2008 or early 2009.
Backstage, the debate has already been very lively.
Germany, the biggest contributor to the union's coffers, has already indicated that farm funds should be strongly reduced in future - something likely to ruffle feathers in France, the key beneficiary of agricultural support.
In the UK, the biggest controversy is likely to be centred around the country's rebate, which was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and which prevents the UK from making excessive net payments to the EU budget.