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Britain’s EU membership hangs by one less thread

Britain, it seems, owes the European Union a certain sum of money. In every year since 2002, it has underpaid into the EU budget and the day of reckoning has finally arrived. However, as usual when it comes to ‘Europe’ for the UK, symbolism triumphs over substance. The country has been hit with a bill for £1.7 billion and given less than six weeks to pay.

It’s hard to argue that the UK shouldn’t pay up. For over a decade, other EU countries have been charged more because Britain didn’t fully implement the agreed standards for measuring the national accounts. At its heart, it’s a question of fairness. Member States pay for the EU in proportion to the size of their economies. The compounding of years’ worth of errors is simply being addressed.

For an issue which is supposedly so straightforward, it could not be more complicated. Britain’s EU membership has hardly looked so precarious than at present, and this surcharge has added incalculable fuel to the political bonfire that is UK-EU relations. Domestic electoral politics are the winner of the hour, as the UK’s parties position themselves on and around Europe. Any notion of Britain stabilising its fragile place within the Union appears exceedingly remote.

At times such as this, the politics of the EU truly do give the impression of being on a completely different wavelength than those of the UK. Brussels seems as remote and incomprehensible as at any time in the past few years. The European Commission’s suggestion that the UK should just pay the bill and move on betrays its lack of understanding of British politics. Moreover, this row will hardly be a good start for the new intake of Commissioners.

If Britain won’t collect any sympathy from the Berlaymont, it’s not going to find much in the Justus Lipsius either. The UK has burned far too many of its bridges to garner much support from beyond the minority of states also financially disadvantaged by this ‘budgetary correction’. The country whose majority governing party pledges to undo one of the EU’s founding principles may discover the world can be a lonely place.

The endgame to this latest struggle is shrouded in the same storm clouds which hang over the UK’s future in the EU. Perhaps the payment dates can be stretched or the amounts slightly tweaked, but presumably Britain will have to pay – all or nearly all of what it owes now. That reality will only further polarise the political landscape at home.

‘Europe’ has never felt to have been fully understood in Britain. It’s an issue to be dealt with at best, a necessary evil at worst. Today’s politics bear out that collective indifference. The UK has wandered into the dangerous predicament of being in the EU but with startlingly little say on key questions. Regardless of the outcome in May 2015, much work will be needed not just to keep Britain ‘in’ the EU, but ‘in’ with substantive influence.

No matter how technical the questions of the past week were meant to be, their impact has been to make the prospect of the UK remaining in the EU materially more difficult. It would take extraordinary political talent to explain to the public how this ‘surprise’ bill is good for Britain. Almost inevitably, the current situation will eventually be sorted (presumably to no one’s satisfaction) and the crisis averted. Of far greater concern is the cumulative effect of perpetual Europe crises on the disposition of the British people towards the European Union.

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How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2014) ‘Britain’s EU membership hangs by one less thread’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 27 October 2014,

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