Britain’s relationship with the European Union has always been a tenuous one, from Charles de Gaulle’s veto to Edward Heath’s successful entry to Thatcher and Major’s flirtations with the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Britain lies in Europe, but typically at the fringes of the European system—outside of the Schengen area and Eurozone. And now Britain’s very membership in the European Union looks increasingly at risk. If the current course continues on its way, Britain will surely decide to exit the EU. British politicians and European bureaucrats alike should take note and act with caution in the coming months and years.
The most recent spat has arisen from the always-contentious matter of budgetary contributions. Currently, Britain contributes £8.6 billion to the European budget; national contributions are determined by a typically obscure system weighing gross national income, VAT receipts, and customs duties, all measured relative to other member states. Based upon a recent recalculation of these values, Brussels has decided that Britain’s economy has been performing better than previously thought, and Westminster should thus contribute £1.7 billion more. This is a frankly stunning decision. Britain is one of only eight member states ordered to increase its contribution; and the next-greatest increase is the Netherlands’ £508 million. Meanwhile, the other eighteen member states, including Germany and France, the political heavyweights of the Union, will receive significant reimbursements—in the French case, amounting to £800 million.
The domestic political context into which this demand for increased contributions comes is particularly notable. In May’s elections to the European Parliament, Nigel Farage’s upstart United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), dedicated to a British exit from the EU, placed first, with nearly 27% of the vote—the first time since the fall of the Liberal Party a hundred years ago that neither the Tories nor Labour won a nationwide election. UKIP recently gained its first seat at Westminster, in the form of a Conservative defection, and looks set to gain another at the Rochester by election. Meanwhile, polling for the May 2015 general election predicts that UKIP could win nearly a quarter of the vote.
But even without the influence of UKIP, Britain’s EU membership looks fragile. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a straight in-out referendum on membership in 2017 if the Conservatives form a government after the 2015 general election. He also recently announced that, should he fail to negotiate successfully for major changes to membership terms, he would be prepared to recommend that the British people vote for exit. This comes at the urging of his own party—the 1922 Committee, a group of backbench Conservative MPs, demanded that Cameron promise such a referendum, and the backbenchers grow ever more vigilant as EU demands grow tighter.
Within this context, the EU’s demand for a twenty percent increase in British contributions seems remarkably misguided. What seems even more remarkable is that they have presented the bill with a deadline at the end of November — Britain has only five weeks to pay. The Brussels bureaucrats, already the subject of much scorn across Europe, have acted as if they have no knowledge whatsoever of the precarious domestic political situation in Britain and as if their actions will have no consequences on the likelihood of a British exit. But surely they must know that the United Kingdom is the EU’s third-largest economy, still maintains a Security Council seat, and can accurately claim to exert global influence. A European Union without Britain would be enfeebled, a Continental shadow of is former self, possibly liberated from some internal dissension but certainly lacking in its previous power and unity. The actions of the Brussels bureaucrats display a willful lack of care about this situation, a belief that their actions are justified no matter what, and that Britain will eventually come to its senses in a similar manner as to the Scots last month.
If the demand for increased budgetary contributions is a gamble, it is a risky one, and Brussels must pray that it succeed and that Britain will pay without significant complaint. For should it fail, Brussels will have played directly into the hands of Mr. Farage; will have taken a step towards alienating David Cameron, a reasonable man whom his own party will force into further Euroscepticism; and will have contributed to the anti-European growing in the United Kingdom, especially in England. But Europe needs Britain as much as Britain needs Europe, and Brussels must tread very lightly here. Britain is too valuable a partner to lose.
What can Mr. Cameron do in the next five weeks, before the bill is due? He must fight it. He must demonstrate the sort of powerful statesmanship of which he is capable and which, so far, only Mr. Farage has properly exercised in the myriad debates over the last year. He must make clear that Britain will not accept what is essentially a tax for its well-performing economy, an unexpected penalty with a short deadline and high price. He must end his fatal ambivalence over the European question, which has increased the popularity of Mr. Farage’s concrete proposals at the cost of the unity of the Conservative Party. And if he seeks to renegotiate Britain’s place in Europe, as he has previously stated, now is the time to begin. Mr. Cameron will not be alone in his battle—Dutch diplomats and Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister, have begun to raise questions over the justice and wisdom of Brussels’ increased budgetary demands on their countries.
The evident and appalling arrogance of the Brussels bureaucrats, their stunning gall in demanding over two billion euros from Britain while at the same time reducing the contributions of nearly every other country, demonstrates well enough the reasons for which the British people believe the time has come to reconsider their place in the European Union. I pray that, after the 2017 referendum has come and gone, they will decide to remain within Europe, but based upon the treatment they have received from Brussels, I could not blame them for choosing to leave.