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30 October 2014updated 20 Aug 2021 8:44am

How the UK government’s hefty Brussels bill could lead us to an EU exit

Could David Cameron's necessary tantrum over Brussels' £1.7bn surcharge be pushing Britain further down a path that ends with an EU exit?

By Anushka Asthana

“I’m pro-European, but . . .” The words sum up the sentiment I keep on hearing when it comes to that eye-watering £1.7bn Brussels bill. It is not just tub-thumping eurosceptics who are feeling sore about the scale of this financial demand; some dedicated Brussophiles are up in arms too.

Just look to Westminster where the angry clashes are not about the underlying issue itself because all the mainstream parties agree. David Cameron insists he won’t pay; Ed Miliband says he mustn’t. Even Nick Clegg finds the whole thing unacceptable.

And this isn’t just a knee-jerk response to the domestic political pressures created by the rise of Ukip. It is because this feels deeply unfair to British voters, not least given the economic context of austerity.

An upward adjustment of Britain’s annual EU budget contribution of almost 20 per cent (much larger than this process has ever before delivered) has been calculated because of our economic recovery. And yet with wages continuing to lag below inflation, it is an upturn that is not being felt by even private sector workers yet.

As for the teachers and nurses of the public sector, try explaining to them how the austerity that is being imposed squares with handing over hundreds of millions of pounds to our seemingly wealthy continental neighbours.

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When you consider that even Greece has been delivered a bill to help fund the massive rebates for France and Germany, it seems even more absurd. 

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So it is clear that David Cameron has little choice but to stamp his feet on this one. But I do wonder whether this necessary tantrum is pushing Britain further down a path that ends with an EU exit. After all, it is difficult to see how the Prime Minister unwinds these seemingly intractable European problems that he is storing up.

On the EU budget, the message from Brussels has been quick and clear: pay up or face spiralling fines. Negotiating a compromise that is acceptable to a British public being wooed by Nigel Farage will be a monumental task.

On the other toxic issue – freedom of movement of labour – Cameron has set down red lines that his EU counterparts want to steamroll over. Senior Tories may dismiss the views of the outgoing and incoming presidents of the European Commission but they can hardly ignore the German Chancellor.

Angela Merkel is clear that she considers this a fundamental principle.

That is not to say she, nor Jean Claude Juncker, want Britain to leave. To the contrary, they will try hard to help Cameron achieve EU reform.

But they will only do so on issues such as red tape or the access of migrants to benefits. Even if they concede tougher limits on freedom of movement for new EU countries, that is much less than the Prime Minister has promised British voters.

Now add into that mix the EU referendum, which is starting to look like the flagship Conservative policy for the next election. In one Tory briefing paper, which I’ve had sight of, strategists tell MPs it is the only policy they are allowed to concede as a red line in any future coalition talks.

So if the Tories win the next election (the polls show it is a big if), it is very likely to happen. And if it does, issues like this whopping financial demand are unlikely to fade from the nation’s mind.

One senior Lib Dem source calls it deeply frustrating. He points out that by dropping the bombshell at the recent Brussels summit, officials made sure that no one was talking about the positive, landmark agreements over tackling ebola and climate change.

“It is a classic case of Brussels not helping pro-Europeans in Britain to make their case.”

It won’t help Mr Cameron, either, who would ideally like to campaign to stay in a reformed EU. But if he fails to significantly reduce the amount we pay or achieve concessions on freedom of movement, is that really going to be possible?

Perhaps he will have to take Boris Johnson’s advice, and be prepared to walk away.

Cameron asked other leaders at the recent summit to cut him some slack or they might find Farage taking his place. What EU supporters are much more worried about is the growing prospect of Britain vacating its seat completely.

Anushka Asthana is a political correspondent at Sky News