Britain is holding bilateral discussions with all its 24 partners in the European Union until September in a bid to solve the contentious budget impasse it got itself into, British High Commissioner Vincent Fean told the press yesterday.
“The 10 new member states need certainty about the structural and cohesion funds”, he said. “We’re conscious of that”
Giving a press briefing about the six-month UK Presidency of the European Union which started this month, Fean spoke about England’s hope of securing an agreement about the EU budget for 2007-2013 following last month’s failure to reach a final package under the Luxembourg presidency.
“The best way forward is to listen to the views of all 24 partners, digest their views and then come up with suggestions later with a firm intention of achieving a settlement,” Fean said yesterday. “Malta’s views are known and will be part of that kaleidoscope.”
Last week, EU budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite said that Britain was unlikely to resolve the divisive row over the bloc’s long-term budget during its six-month presidency.
“I see very slim chances on (the) possibility in the UK period to have an agreement on financial perspectives,” if the current tensions continue, she said.
Echoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s hope of making progress on the EU’s financial front, Fean said yesterday that the UK would be willing to discuss its controversial budget overhaul as long as there was a debate about the overall EU budget, particularly the farm subsidy system of which France is the biggest beneficiary.
“We find it odd that the EU budget should spend 40 per cent on 5 per cent of the population producing 2 per cent of the GDP,” Fean said. “We are not looking for an overnight solution. We are looking for a discussion where if the UK abatement is on the table – and we said yes to that – there is an understanding that the reason for that abatement is on the table too.”
The UK wanted its presidency to be “effective, impartial and business-like”, Fean said. Among its priorities there is also sugar reform within the Common Agricultural Policy.
“We think change is desirable in itself. EU prices are three times higher than the international market price of sugar”.
Fean said Malta has rightly resorted to state aid to help local industry. The UK will be searching for consensus on market-based liberalising reform.
The Working Time directive is expected to crop up again under the British presidency, the high commissioner said. The UK takes Malta’s position in favour of the opt-out clause.
The UK’s priority on security was about to be about illegal immigration, Fean said, but after last week’s terrorist attacks in London have shifted counter-terrorism back on the agenda.
Asked about Malta’s proposal to the EU to start sharing the burden of illegal immigration by getting other member states to accept numbers of refugees every year to resettle, Fean said this was “the trickiest part of the agenda” and said it was mainly a question for every individual member state to decide.
“It’s not an issue on which Brussels can ordain. It’s a question of whether individual states can increase their stock of migrants. What we’re committed to do is supporting efforts to address root causes of illegal immigration,” Fean said. “It is up to each individual member state to see what it can do.”
He said the UK was “looking hard” at the problem of illegal immigration and at the outcome of the 5 + 5 meeting of foreign ministers hosted in Malta two weeks ago.