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Britain's Cameron set for fresh Brussels battle

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

British Prime Minister David Cameron returns to battle in Brussels this week for the first time since he delivered a landmark pledge to to hold a referendum on his country's relationship with the EU.

Cameron will use the EU summit on Thursday and Friday to push his demands for cuts to the bloc's trillion-euro budget, a quest which has already caused deep divisions within the 27-nation European Union.

The budget row comes hot on the heels of his announcement on January 23 that he wants to take back certain powers from Europe and then put the new terms to a public vote in Britain by the end of 2017.

The question at this week's summit is whether he will seek to smooth the ruffled feathers of his European partners and accept slightly less hawkish terms on the budget, in return for their support further down the line.

Britain's Europe minister David Lidington said Monday that Cameron would not accept a budget deal "at any price" -- while adding that he had heard "open minds" regarding the prime minister's demands for treaty change.

Cameron has won political capital at home with his referendum gambit, which has boosted his poll ratings among an increasingly eurosceptic British public and quelled his famously turbulent Conservative party, for now at least.

But he will need the support of other EU leaders to successfully renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels over the next two years, and may be minded to butter them up now.

Many of them have run out of patience with what they regard as British demands for special treatment, especially when the possibility of a "Brexit" from the European Union is now real.

A British government source said Cameron felt he had built a "strong alliance" among net budget contributors like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands and was "hopeful of a better outcome" this week.

German Chancellor and EU powerbroker Angela Merkel also appeared sympathetic to Cameron's calls for more austerity when a special summit on the issue collapsed in November, the source said.

His Brussels trip will not be the first time that Cameron has actually met some of his fellow EU leaders since he delivered his long-awaited speech in Europe.

The British leader held talks with several of them, including Merkel, in the more relaxed and scenic surroundings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, late last month.

The mood then was a largely conciliatory one with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, saying the bloc would be "stronger if Britain is part of it".

But memories are still fresh of December 2011 when Cameron was the outcast of Europe, shunned by angry counterparts when he vetoed a crucial fiscal pact that was aimed at tackling the crisis in the eurozone.

Cameron's stance on the EU has also caused alarm in the United States, long one of Britain's closest allies.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who is due to meet Cameron on Tuesday, said in a newspaper interview that Britain and Europe would both lose out if Cameron quits the EU.

"We value our essential relationship with the UK, as well as our relationship with the EU, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world," he told The Times newspaper.

"We believe the United Kingdom is stronger as a result of its membership. And we believe the EU is stronger with the UK’s involvement. That’s our view."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130204/britains-cameron-set-fresh-brussels-battle