BRUSSELS – Everything is set for the trillion-euro EU summit to be bruising, long, and, very likely, inconclusive.
Leaders from the European Union's 27 countries were laying bare the gaps between wealthy and poorer members on Thursday during negotiations on the bloc's spending plan for the next seven years now that Britain has left.
If they kept a united stand during the four years of Brexit talks, only division was on show Thursday.
“I don’t plan to put my signature to this," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said of the latest compromise budget proposal, denting hopes for a breakthrough in the coming hours. All came in for the long haul, and Rutte was prepared, carrying a biography of Polish composer Frederic Chopin to get him through the long hours of negotiations.
Outside the summit center, farmers rolled in tractors in the street to push their demands for sufficient funds. From farm subsidies to beefed-up border security or unprecedented climate investment, every EU leader wants the continent-wide budget to fund their own national priorities.
Diplomats and number-crunchers have worked on the budget for years but the issues are so divisive that the leaders' summit might last into Saturday and still end without a result.
“There are lot of concerns, priorities, and interests," said EU Council President Charles Michel. “I’m well aware that the final steps that must be taken to find a compromise are always the most difficult.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said she hoped “we get at least a good deal further," but was forthright in defending the wealthy nations. “For net contributors the balance is not right yet."
The EU nations need to regroup after Britain's departure three weeks ago, and a show of unity on their common budget could help in that regard.
“With Great Britain leaving, it is a clear signal we have to give to our citizens that Europe is alive and well and we can continue functioning." said Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins.
Prospects of that don't look good.
Britain's exit means the loss of up to 75 billions euros ($81 billion) in net contributions to the budget, and how to make up for that is causing friction. Leaders of rich nations don't want to have to pay more into that common EU pot, and those from poorer member states are angry at the prospect of receiving less money from the EU.
Even if a trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) sounds like a lot, it actually amounts to about 1% of the gross national income of the 27 nations combined. The debate is over some 0.3 percentage points.
It’s not just about convincing reluctant member countries to stump up funds. The European Parliament must also ratify any final budget agreement and the EU lawmakers are not happy.
“At the moment, we remain 230 billion euros ($248 billion) apart," European Parliament President David Sassoli said this week.
Michel came into the summit with a draft budget at 1.074% of EU gross national income. The parliament wants 1.3%, while the EU’s powerful executive arm, the European Commission, prefers 1.11%.
Ahead of the negotiations, the 27 member nations are roughly divided into two main camps. The so-called “Frugal Four” of Austria, Denmark, Rutte's the Netherlands and Sweden versus the “Friends of Cohesion,” a group of mainly central and eastern European nations who want to see the continued flow of “cohesion funds,” money earmarked to help develop poorer regions.
The frugal four would like the budget to drop to as low as 1% of gross national income and say that with the loss of Britain the EU has to cut its coat according to its cloth.
French President Emmanuel Macron wants to go the other way. “”It would be unacceptable to have a Europe that compensates the departure of the British by reducing spending."
Complicating things further is the level of global uncertainty beyond the continent. While climate change was largely a technical matter during the last budget negotiations seven years ago, this time the EU is planning to spend a quarter of its budget on green issues - hoping to set an example for governments around the world.
Add that to the many other, varied issues the budget will cover - like agriculture, education and transport - and it makes for a difficult summit.
Lorne Cook contributed to this report.