In the coming days, we will likely see yet another revival of the grand European tradition for interminable and acrimonious budgetary negotiations. On 22-23 November, leaders of the EU27, as well as the leaders of the European Commission, Council and parliament are to meet in Brussels to hammer out an agreement on the next multiannual financial framework, that is to say the EU budget for 2014-2020. In a sign that everyone expects the sessions to be problematic, civil servants, diplomats and journalists are already planning to stay on in the city until 24 or even 25 November.

The story so far is as follows: last July, the Commission proposed a budget of 1.025 trillion euros, an increase of 5% over the previous envelope for 2007-2013. Several countries, led by the United Kingdom, which is defending a rebate obtained by Margaret Thatcher, announced that the sum requested was too much given the austerity that is the order of the day in Europe’s member states.

Cyprus, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, then proposed a budget for €50 billion less. However, not only did this revised figure fail to convince the partisans of a reduction, but it also alarmed a number of states, led by Poland, which were worried that they would lose a significant portion of their structural funds.

Then came the turn of Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who proposed to cut €75bn from the sum demanded by the Commission — a move that led France, which is opposed to any reduction in the Common Agricultural Policy budget, to join the ranks of the dissenting countries. Last but not least, Germany, which has consistently advocated a budget equivalent to 1% of the Gross National Income (GNI) of EU countries (close to the figure suggested by Cyprus), has offered to act as an arbitrator in all discussions.

In the context of an economic crisis that is unabating and now affecting the most powerful Eurozone states as well as the most solid non-Eurozone countries, the drafting of a common pluriannual budget could have been an opportunity for concrete reflection on the EU’s future, offering something more fleshed out than the simple implementation of budgetary austerity. However, notwithstanding their instistence that their main priority is Europe, the leaders who will sit down at the Council table in Brussels will be mainly focused on the defence of national interests.

There is no denying that the total amount and the use which is made of the hundreds of billions (funded by European taxpayers) that are at stake should be studied, contested and negotiated. But at the same time, it must be borne in mind that behind the sums, which are now being worked into formulae and complex paragraphs designed to ensure that no one loses face, there are essential policies that will need to be precisely defined for seven years to come.

The budgets for agriculture, regional development, and education and research ought to reflect the choices that Europe must make if it is use fewer fertilisers and polluting energies, effectively reduce territorial inequalities, and reinvent an industrial policy that is advantageous to all of its members and a young generation that is struggling to cope with the impact of the crisis.

Instead of offering — like Margaret Thatcher, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder did in their day — the spectacle of a nocturnal bargaining session, Europe’s leaders should be keen to demonstrate that they have a vision for the future of Europe. As it stands, they still have a few days in which they can take action to avoid missing this opportunity.