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British PM sets bullish tone in Brussels battle

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Prime Minister David Cameron warned Thursday he was ready to veto an EU budget deal failing further cuts, as he attended his first summit since pledging a vote on Britain's membership of the bloc.

The British premier was in a bullish mood as he made clear that he would not abandon his demands to slash European Union spending in the next seven years, a request that caused the collapse of the bloc's previous budget summit.

"When we were last here in November, the numbers that were put forward were much too high. They need to come down. And if they don't come down, there won't be a deal," Cameron told reporters as he arrived in Brussels.

Last year, he refused to accept the trillion-euro budget on the table, despite EU President Herman Van Rompuy cutting it back to 973 billion euros ($1.32 trillion) under pressure from London.

Britain is now pushing to cut "tens of billions (of euros) off where we were in November", a government source said, adding that progress was being made.

But Cameron's demands have again put him on a collision course with his European partners, many of whom are already angry over his promise last month to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU by 2017.

He had been due to meet French President Francois Hollande before the summit began, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, but the talks did not take place.

Hollande has warned against cutting EU spending on investment projects at a time when 26 million people are unemployed across the EU.

He told reporters on his arrival that "if Europe, seeking to reach a compromise at any cost, should abandon its common policies, forget farming and ignore growth, I will not agree".

Cameron is seeking the support of other net contributors to the European Union in his quest for a tighter budget, including Germany, and had another meeting before the summit with the leaders of northern European nations Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands.

The prime minister's promise of a referendum on EU membership last month won him plaudits among an increasingly eurosceptic British public and especially with elements of his Conservative party who have long been calling for powers to be returned from Brussels to London.

But many EU leaders are growing impatient with what they view as Britain's continued demands for special treatment, and its recent threat of exit from the 27-nation bloc if it doesn't get its way.

Memories are also still fresh of a summit in December 2011 when Cameron found himself isolated after vetoing a fiscal pact aimed at tackling the crisis in the eurozone, of which Britain is not a part.

Cameron will need his European allies to help him push through the reforms he outlined in his speech on January 23, when he made the case for Britain's place in Europe but warned that its unwieldy institutions needed to change.

The prime minister has targeted the Brussels bureaucracy for the bulk of the budget cuts, warning that the EU cannot be exempt from the austerity being introduced across Europe following the global economic crisis.

His coalition government, comprising the Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats, is under intense pressure as the country teeters on the edge of a triple-dip recession.

"The European Union should not be immune from the sorts of pressures that we've had, to reduce spending, find efficiencies and make sure that we spend money wisely, that we're all having to do right across Europe," Cameron said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130207/british-pm-sets-bullish-tone-brussels-battle