Britain’s new European commissioner said yesterday that a row between London and Brussels over a demand for €2.1bn budget payment had become highly political and needed to be calmed down.
The intervention suggests Jonathan Hill, who remains little known in his native country, will play the role of peacemaker between the government and European Commission at a time when Britain’s membership of the EU is at the heart of an emotive debate before a general election next year.
“The sensible thing now is to try to calm the situation down and to look at the facts and to look at a practical solution that various member states face,” Hill told BBC radio.
The commission angered Prime Minister David Cameron last month by presenting his country with what he called an unacceptably large bill in an appalling way, after a technical recalculation of member states’ economies.
The bill was a political gift to Ukip, which wants Britain to leave the EU. The party’s growing popularity threatens to split the right-wing vote in the national election in May 2015, making it harder for Cameron to get re-elected.
Under pressure from some MPs in his own Conservative party to take a tougher line with the EU, Cameron has said he won’t pay the bill by a December 1 deadline or “anything like” it, drawing criticism from Jean-Claude Juncker, the new commission president.
Speaking before a meeting of EU finance ministers today at which the bill will be discussed, Hill, the commissioner for financial services, agreed with Cameron that Britain should stay in the EU once it is reformed and called for the dispute to be de-escalated.
“This is one of those classic examples you get from time to time where something that a group of people think are technical matters suddenly, and in this case for perfectly understandable reasons, become highly political,” Hill said.
Hill was speaking a day after Juncker, whose appointment as commission president Cameron tried and failed to block, said the British leader “has a problem” with other European leaders in comments that risked further souring relations.
EU officials have floated the idea of allowing Britain to pay the bill in instalments. However, Cameron has made it clear he wants it substantially reduced.
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