DAVID Cameron has angrily denounced a surprise European Commission demand for £1.7 billion from UK taxpayers as “unacceptable” and “unjustified” and flatly refused to pay the money by the deadline of 1 December.
A visibly furious Prime Minister yesterday made clear he was ready to take legal action to try to block the EU charge, which he compared with being coshed with a piece of lead piping in a game of Cluedo.
Asked whether it would push Britain closer to the exit door from Europe in the referendum he has promised in 2017, Mr Cameron conceded that it “certainly doesn’t help” to make the case for Britain staying in the EU.
After interrupting a summit of the European Council in Brussels to demand discussion of the shock financial demand, Mr Cameron secured agreement on an urgent meeting of EU finance ministers to review the proposed payments.
He won the backing of other EU states, including the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and Malta, who are also facing surcharges. Italy’s Matteo Renzi told fellow leaders the demand was “a lethal weapon” that would lead voters to see the Commission as “technocrats and bureaucrats without a heart or a soul” – something Mr Cameron said he agreed with “every word” of.
But agreement to reduce or waive the payments may prove difficult, as some other major EU states stand to benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros – with France expecting €1 billion (£800m) and Germany € 779 million.
The extra payment from the UK was requested after Brussels reviewed the economic performances of member states since 1995, and readjusted the contributions made by each over the past four years based on their pace of growth.
“If people think I am paying that bill on 1 December, they have another think coming,” the Prime Minister said in Brussels. “It is not going to happen.
“It is an unacceptable way for this organisation to work - to suddenly present a bill like this for such a vast sum of money with so little time to pay it. And it is an unacceptable way to treat one of the biggest contributors to the European Union. It is an appalling way to behave.”
Yesterday Labour said the row showed Mr Cameron was now “isolated, one foot out of the door, and ignored” in Europe and accused him of failing to act quickly enough.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the Treasury must have known about the surcharge for “weeks and weeks” and asked: “What has our Prime Minister been doing? How could he suddenly be surprised about this?”
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said the demand for an additional payment should not have come as a surprise to Britain as member states’ contributions were adjusted in this way each year in the autumn.
“I understand the concerns in London, but sometimes these decisions do happen.” Pushed as to what would happen if the UK did not pay, he said: “I cannot speculate on non-payment.”
The demands come at a time when the Conservative party is already under increased competition from Ukip, which has already snatched one seat from the Tories at a by-election in Clacton-upon-Sea and is potentially set to do so again at the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who is angling to garner the support of Eurosceptic Tory voters, said Mr Cameron would have little option but to go along with the demand.
“Of course he will pay up. These are the rules, the contributions to the European Union was a very complex formula and part of it is a measurement of your GDP against everybody else’s. There’s nothing he can do.”