EU ministers challenge Britain's victory claim on huge bill

7th November 2014, Comments 0 comments

Britain declared victory after the EU agreed Friday to extend a deadline for a huge 2.

1-billion-euro bill, but walked straight into a new row as other countries rejected its claims to have reduced the amount.

Prime Minister David Cameron had refused to pay the top-up, warning that it could push Britain towards the EU exit in a referendum that he has promised to hold in 2017, so long as he wins in a general election next May.

After tense talks in Brussels, finance minister George Osborne said the bill had been "halved", and that instead of a December 1 cut-off, Britain would now pay the rest in two instalments before September 2015.

But other European ministers insisted Britain would still have to pay the full sum, while Cameron's eurosceptic political opponents accused him of using "smoke and mirrors" to hide the truth.

"Instead of footing the bill, we have halved the bill, we have delayed the bill, we will pay no interest on the bill," Osborne told reporters.

"This is far beyond what anyone expected us to achieve, and it's a result for Britain.

"The bill infuriated Cameron after he said he was ambushed with it at a European summit in October, and he quickly used Friday's deal to defend himself against growing pressure from the eurosceptic UK Independence Party.

"I said we wouldn't pay £1.

7bn on December 1st.

We've now halved the bill and will pay nothing until next July.

We're delivering for Britain," he wrote on Twitter.

- 'He didn't get a discount' -The original bill was based on a recalculation of EU nations' budgets dating back more than a decade, and Cameron had refused to pay either the full amount or meet the December deadline.

Osborne said Britain would only pay half the original bill, giving Brussels a total of £850 million in two instalments in July and September next year.

The rest would be offset against a full upfront payment of the £3 billion annual rebate negotiated by British premier Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, he said.

But other EU ministers challenged the British claims.

"My understanding is that the UK will have to pay the whole amount," Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said.

Asked about Osborne's figure, he said: "I don't know what the basis of that calculation is.

" The Netherlands' finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem -- whose own country faces a 642-million-euro bill from the EU -- also disputed Osborne's claims.

"He didn't get a discount for the British today," said Dijsselbloem, who is also head of the Eurogroup nations which use the single currency.

"The UK has had the right for a rebate for a very long time.

"German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said when asked if the ministers had agreed to reduce Britain's payment: "We did not talk about that.

"But Britain received some backing from EU budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who said Osborne's claim was "factually correct" and that the two instalments would together total about one billion euros.

- 'Smoke and mirrors' -The deal reignited political debate in Britain, with UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose party stole its first parliamentary seat off the Conservatives last month, tearing into his rivals.

"Osborne trying to spin his way out of disaster.

UK still paying full £1.

7bn, his credibility is about to nose dive," Farage wrote on Twitter.

The economics spokesman for Britain's main opposition Labour party, Ed Balls, accused Cameron and Osborne of using "smoke and mirrors".

The row overshadowed new European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker's first week in office, with Juncker accusing Cameron of having a "problem" with other leaders.

EU officials have said they are keen to keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc, but there are increasing signs that they are tiring of his demands, which also include limiting free movement within the union.

The immigration issue came up when Cameron met Nordic leaders at a conference in Helsinki earlier Friday at which he said there were "different perspectives" but also some "common ground".

But the subject is causing a growing rift with Cameron's former ally Angela Merkel, with the German chancellor reportedly saying the curbs he wants are a "red line".

© 2014 AFP

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