What member states chip in to the EU budget should be in proportion to the size of their economies. This is the rule that the European Commission is enacting as it requests Britain pay £1.7bn extra to the budget. It’s a mechanism out in place in the mid-Nineties, which has carried on ever since – and today presents the UK government with a surprise, and sizeable, surcharge.
David Cameron is currently attending an EU summit with other member state leaders in Brussels. Downing Street has commented that the government is fighting against paying this extra charge. The BBC reports a government source saying:
It’s not acceptable to just change the fees for previous years and demand them back at a moment’s notice.
The European Commission was not expecting this money and does not need this money and we will work with other countries similarly affected to do all we can to challenge this.
Although the request for Britain’s extra contribution is a result of Commission using new calculations for working out how much each country should contribute in proportion to their gross national incomes, and is not politically motivated, this is very bad timing politically for Cameron.
He is battling through a time of intense pressure on his leadership, and the popularity of his party, regarding the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Ukip is gaining ground, as a looming by-election in the most recent Tory defector’s seat in Rochester and Strood suggests the Conservatives will lose another seat to the anti-EU party.
Cameron has had to talk about “one last go” at curbing EU migration in his renegotiation of Britain’s membership status, and the idea of an “emergency brake” on incoming immigrants has been floated. Alongside his clear compulsion to talk an even tougher game on EU migration, Cameron has also had a fight on his hands electorally, trying to respond to Ukip’s straightforward “better off out” messaging on the UK and the EU.
This extra charge, which took the government by surprise, and is due on 1 December this year, is a chance for both his political opponents and the disgruntled eurosceptics in his own party to make a mockery of any idea that he can be influential in reining in the cost of the EU to British taxpayers.
Their view would be that if he doesn’t even manage to challenge a surcharge, how can he fight for Britain to have a stronger position in the European Union in general? And it could be difficult for Cameron to make the argument, because it may require arguing that our country’s deficit is still too high to afford such a contribution – an argument the former minister and eurosceptic John Redwood was making this morning on the BBC’s Today programme.