Yet another month has gone by without demonstrable progress in the urgent task of agreeing the European Union's medium-term budget.

The deadline for the EU's next funding plan - the so-called financial perspective - is not a moveable feast. Without an early accord, the EU cannot do much meaningful planning for the 2007-2013 period that the new financial perspective covers.

But for months now, member state meetings on the subject have produced little more than polite formulas along the lines of "useful exchanges within the framework established for the discussions".

The split remains as deep as ever between the current net contributor countries - who want a tight limit on the EU budget - and the current and future net beneficiaries - who want their slice to come out of the biggest cake possible.

The continuing deadlock risks paralysing strategic business at a crucial moment in the EU's evolution: regional and cohesion funding, the new long-term research programme, progress in EU enlargement - particularly to Turkey, with all the budgetary implications in absorbing such a large and relatively poor country - and even the Lisbon Strategy itself.

The debate is now further complicated by the probability of a May general election in the UK - which holds one of the keys to the...

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