It would be tempting to hail the European Union budget agreement as an achievement in itself, almost regardless of the contents. And for 27 national leaders, with very different agendas, operating in a climate of austerity, a deal is no mean feat at only the second time of trying. What looked so far out of reach in December became possible yesterday after just 24 hours of talks.
Better still, the agreement somehow contrived to offer something to almost everyone. And while every national leader needs to take something home from Brussels, the stakes were especially high yesterday, not only because this budget deal is intended to last for seven years. Under pressure at home, François Hollande could not afford to look outmanoeuvred on money for agriculture. Chancellor Merkel faces an election in September that looks closer than once thought, and David Cameron's tribulations over Europe hardly need to be spelt out.
At his press conference, the Prime Minister made much of the cut that had been agreed in the EU budget – and his satisfaction was justified, given that all previous budgets have increased, even if he did suggest that he had slain the dragon alone. He boasted, too, of how doughtily he had defended what remains of the British rebate, while Mr Hollande, it appears, had to give – some – ground on agricultural subsidies. But Mr Cameron had also to concede, in answer to questions, that Britain's contribution would still rise, even though it remains a tiny part of total expenditure.
That could be seized on by his party's Eurosceptics to challenge the whole deal – which anyway has still to be ratified by the European Parliament. But Mr Cameron can be pleased that he achieved what he came for, if not a little more. In fact, in his low-key approach to this summit and his readiness to make common cause with, as he put it, "the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes and Angela", the Prime Minister might even be learning how to play EU politics to good effect. That makes it doubly unfortunate that all many of our European partners see, after his recent speech, is the prospect of an in/out referendum that casts doubt on our commitment.