EU goes into meeting frenzy ahead of February 20 summit

European Union leaders and institutions went into a frenzy of meetings this week to start the toughest job the bloc faces this year: agreeing on a seven-year budget that for many is the most tangible sign of what a united Europe will look like after Brexit.

In a marathon of preparations for a special summit on the budget on Feb 20, the chairman of EU summits, Charles Michel, and the head of the executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, talked to 22 EU leaders over the last week.

Five more, including the two biggest budget net contributors France and Germany, are scheduled for next week.

“These are the most difficult negotiations we are facing,” a senior EU official involved in the process said.

The current budget, which started in 2014, expires in December, and a new one has to be agreed because farmers across the bloc depend heavily on its support, as do governments for infrastructure projects, education and research.

Michel will use the meetings this week and next to put together a proposal on the overall size of the budget and the distribution of money within it.

So far, proposals on the budget size from various countries and institutions range from 1% of the EU’s annual output, or about 180 billion to 190 billion euros , to 1.3% – about 240 billion euros, for 27 countries.

Three EU officials said on Friday that the bloc’s finance ministers were set to agree a more growth-friendly fiscal policy.

The talks are unusually tough because the departure of Britain, one of the top net contributors to the budget, leaves a net annual gap of more than 9 billion euros on average.

Other net budget contributors do not want to pay more to fill it, while the beneficiaries argue that EU support for farmers or to reduce development inequalities is a must.

The back-to-back discussions between Michel and sometimes as many as five prime ministers a day were aimed at getting across the point that both sides need to compromise or dozens of EU-funded programs and projects could be in danger from 2021./

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