The European Commission has launched court action over EU government plans to block a 3.7 per cent pay rise for thousands of highly paid civil servants.
National government leaders including Prime Minister Gordon Brown have called for the planned increase for well-paid eurocrats to be halved in a display of solidarity with hard-pressed civil servants in the member states.
But today the 27 Commissioners unanimously agreed to defend the full pay hike in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
The move was decided at the first Commission meeting of the year and amounts to a showdown with EU leaders in the face of threatened strike action by nearly 45,000 staff in the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.
The 3.7% pay deal is based on a legally binding formula the member states themselves agreed in 2004.
But the inflation-busting increase is seen in national capitals as sending the wrong signal when public sector workers across Europe are facing pay restrictions during the economic downturn.
With eurocrats' unions up in arms, the Commissioners endorsed a recommendation from their President, Jose Manuel Barroso, to go to court, confident that judges will back the EU staff.
The proposed 2010 rise was calculated as usual on an average of the previous year's civil service pay scales in eight of the richer EU countries, including the UK and Germany.
That formula delivers a 3.7% increase - but EU staff in Brussels point out that it will almost certainly mean a pay cut next year when the annual assessment will be based on this year's national civil service pay.
EU workers' unions say that unless the full deal is honoured, European Parliament staff will strike for five days in the middle of hearings which start next week to approve the new team of nominated Commissioners seeking confirmation from MEPs.
The staff unions already have the support of the most senior Commission civil servant, Secretary General Catherine Day.
In a letter to staff she said: "It is not a question of (EU governments) giving a higher or lower personal salary increase, but of applying the compulsory method for calculating the figure and of respecting European law and the agreement signed by representatives of EU member states in 2004".
A Commission spokesman said today the European Court had been asked to "fast-track" the case to avoid a damaging delay in settling the pay dispute just when the EU is getting back on track after approving the Lisbon Treaty and trying to regain public support.
Last week one official insisted the member states could not over-ride a legally binding pay formula.
"If it goes to court the Commission will win," he claimed.