David Cameron will hold an intensive round of meetings with other European leaders over the next two weeks in an attempt to avoid being isolated on the EU budget at a crucial summit.
The Prime Minister is expected to visit some European capitals and invite the leaders of some other countries to Downing Street to try to rally support for his plan for a real terms freeze in EU spending for 2014-20.
Although Germany, France, the Netherlands and Finland backed Britain’s call for a freeze in 2010, Germany is now supporting a small above-inflation rise and the then leaders of France and Finland have since lost power. Mr Cameron, who has urged these countries to stick to their guns, may also lobby nations such as Spain and Italy.
The Prime Minister’s talks with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, on Wednesday night failed to end the deadlock. There are fears in London that other EU members may coalesce around her proposal for a modest increase in spending – less than the 5 per cent real terms rise sought by the European Commission.
Ms Merkel floated plans for a cut in EU administration costs in Wednesday’s talks at Number 10. But Mr Cameron believes that, with running costs accounting for only about 6 per cent of the total EU budget, the move would not secure the backing of Eurosceptic Tory MPs. Fifty-three of them joined forces with Labour last week to inflict an embarrassing Commons defeat on Mr Cameron by demanding a cut in EU spending.
However, Labour also has its tensions over Europe. Ed Miliband was accused of opportunism by backing the Tory sceptics last week, a move which angered the Liberal Democrats and Labour Europhiles and worried some business leaders, who fear the UK is heading down a slippery slope towards the EU exit door.
Writing in The Independent today Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, tries to reassure Labour’s critics by insisting that it remains a pro-European party. He insists the Opposition was right to demand “restraint and reform” of the EU budget to ensure the European project has “solid foundations” . But he argues that Labour remains an internationalist party committed to Britain’s future in Europe. “In the months and years ahead Labour will continue to make the case for reform of Europe and not exit from Europe,” he writes.
Fears among Europhiles and business leaders that the increasingly heated debate could push Britain out of the EU were heightened yesterday by a YouGov poll showing that 49 per cent of people would vote leave the Union if there were a referendum now, while only 28 per cent would vote to stay in the EU and 17 per cent replied “don’t know”. In contrast, 57 per of Germans would vote to remain in the Union.
There are growing signs that EU leaders may not reach agreement at the two-day summit on the budget in Brussels starting on November 22. With Mr Cameron threatening to veto a deal, which requires unanimous support of all 27 leaders, they may have to put off a decision until next year.