Nick Clegg will deploy his pro-European credentials to try to win the vital support of the French prime minister Manuel Valls for a cut and delay in the sudden Brussels demand for an extra £1.7bn UK contribution to the EU budget.
With the French looking for allies in its own fight with Brussels over the size of its national budget deficit, Clegg believes he can win Valls’s support in his bid to persuade Brussels to rethink its request.
He is meeting Valls in Paris and on Wednesday a source close to Clegg said he felt it “was unacceptable for Britain to be slapped with a 10-figure bill and expect payment in less than six weeks”.
The source added that Clegg would be “very clear” with the French prime minister that that is not going to happen. “Nick knows that we need to find a solution to this, and he’s able to influence the debate in Europe in a way other British politicians cannot. He’s not going to grandstand, but he will work with allies to fix this problem.”
Clegg also met the main ambassadors from EU member states in London at an event hosted by the Italians, one of the countries most angered by the budget demand.
With little sign that Brussels believes it needs to back down, Clegg has been instrumental in persuading the Conservative leadership to dampen the rhetoric and try to negotiate a compromise on the basis of a detailed analysis of the statistics that led to the demand.
The chancellor, George Osborne, said he was confident that he could get the demand cut. He added that he was “only at the beginning of a conversation” that will continue at a meeting of EU finance ministers on November 7.
Lord Hill, the recently appointed EU commissioner nominated by Cameron, also conceded that Brussels may have a case. He told the European scrutiny committee: “On one point of fact, which I don’t think has been clearly understood – the notion that this was some kind of surcharge on Britain’s economic success leading to additional money for the European Union – my understanding is that the net effect of these various calculations is that the money available to the European Union will actually fall.”
He added the principle of contributions being revised according to circumstances was “established”. “There have been cases in the past to do, for instance, with Britain’s rebate, where this country would be keen on those calculations and having such a rebate.”
The change to the UK’s contribution resulted from a reassessment of national incomes carried out by statistics authorities in each of the 28 member states, and led to large demands for extra money from Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece, while countries like France and Germany stand to gain to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros.
In a further sign that the Tories may be pulling back from a full-scale confrontation with Brussels, David Cameron used Prime Minister’s Questions to announce that he will be staging a vote to bring in the European arrest warrant before the critical Rochester and Strood by election on 20 November. No specific date for the vote was given.
It had been expected that Cameron, fearing a full-scale backbench rebellion led by the chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, would delay the vote until after the byelection. Cameron urged his backbenchers to recognise that the new arrest warrant was very different to the one introduced by Labour.
Tory MPs said the decision was a signal that Downing Street now expects to lose the byelection to Ukip’s Mark Reckless, and that the best way of minimising the rebellion is to stage the vote before polling day. This way it could appeal to sceptic backbench MPs to show some pre-byelection discipline.
Although Cameron is still due to make a more detailed statement of his stance on the renegotiation of UK membership of the EU before Christmas, there is concern amongst some Tory strategists that a political agenda dominated daily by immigration and running battles with Brussels may be benefiting Ukip.
Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, said: “The European arrest warrant is an abomination. Little surprise that Mr Cameron has called the debate for before Rochester. He’s terrified.”
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