Is David Cameron making a fool of himself? He reacted to Brussels’ sudden demand for £1.7 billion (yes, that’s Billion with a “B”, not million with an “M”) with apoplectic outrage. It was wrong. It was unacceptable. He absolutely refused to pay by December 1st (the date the money is said to be due). He said it several times. Each time: “I refuse to pay on December 1st“. He repeated this rather curious qualification yesterday in the House of Commons.
His response begs the question “So what about December 2nd?”. The problem is paying the money at all, not whether we pay today or tomorrow.
In a sense, he has only himself to blame. I understand that negotiations on a new system of assessing member-states’ GDPs were under way at the end of the last Labour administration in 2010 – but were signed off after the General Election, by George Osborne as the new Chancellor. So from Brussels’ point of view, everything is in order. The new assessment method is properly agreed, and if that increases the UK’s liability, so be it. Surely those pesky Anglo-Saxons should be gratified to find they’ve been doing even better than they thought?
From a UK perspective, however, it looks like daylight robbery. And it is. We are already paying a net £10 billion a year for the dubious privilege of membership of the EU, and that figure is rapidly increasing. Yet EU membership arguably offers no net benefits to the UK. What about trade, you ask? Well the three largest external exporters into the EU are China, Russia and the USA. Obviously none of these is an EU member-state, and currently none has any special trade agreement with the EU (though the Transatlantic Trade Agreement is under negotiation). If they can export to the EU so successfully, how can it be argued that the UK could not?
Then again, the UK is both the EU’s largest customer (EU less UK, that is), and the EU’s largest net customer. They just can’t afford to restrict trade with the UK, whether we’re in the EU or not.
Now, however, we read that Cameron is softening his attitude, and getting ready to pay up. We in UKIP always said he would. The surprise is that he’s started to climb down even before the Rochester by-election on November 20th. And the reason for the change of heart? According to the Daily Mail Brussels has said that if the UK fails to pay, then the British rebate will be under threat.
This is surely the most incompetent threat in the whole sordid history of blackmail (for blackmail it certainly is). The fact is that rebate or not, the UK remains a net contributor (as well as a net customer) of the EU. So there can be no meaningful threat that Brussels will withhold money from us. But there is a powerful and credible threat (if Cameron had the back-bone to use it) that we could withhold money from them.
In terms of budget contributions, and in terms of trade, Britain matters far more to Brussels than Brussels matters to Britain. It’s time to start showing a little self-confidence, and exercising a little clout.
One good thing at least arises from this sorry mess. Finally Cameron’s confidence that he can succeed in renegotiating our EU membership has taken a knock. Maybe he’s starting to engage with reality at last.