An aspect of the European Union’s future that neither German chancellor Angela Merkel nor French president Emmanuel Macron mentioned in their Davos homilies was its budget. It’s a balance sheet that currently benefits from a net UK contribution of €12bn to €15bn that, sooner or later, will not be there. Bean-counters in treasuries from Dublin and Lisbon to Sofia and Nicosia will, for a while, be attending to the ups and downs of the next phase of Brexit negotiations. When that is done, filling the black hole will be next business for the EU 27.
If the commission is determined to maintain the bloc’s spending — which it probably will be — member states have to choose between the rock or the hard place or, as they might say in Athens, Scylla, and Charybdis: either net contributors — the wealthier countries — pay more, or net recipients get less.
Noises off have started. In Finland — which, like Ireland, makes an insignificant net contribution — higher payments would be “unbearable”, its Europe minister said last week. The German government’s position, in as much as Germany has a settled government, is unclear. Higher contributions or less EU spending in countries that are currently net recipients is likely to stoke up support for anti-Brussels populism.
Mr Macron’s grand design for Europe will be little more than scribbling on a Post-it note until the EU’s 27 agree who is going to pay how much, and for what.