Tuesday

22nd Oct 2019

EUobserved

When two worlds collide

Two worlds collided at the end of last week. The shrill, uncompromising one of British politics and the technocratic, dry, world of the European Commission.

From the get-go it was a vaguely ridiculous affair. There was the bill for €2.1bn for the UK only no-one (initially) knew how the figure was calculated.

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British PM David Cameron was confronted with news of the unwanted bill (via an FT scoop) on Thursday afternoon. Into the evening and well into Friday there were still no proper answers. All that was clear was that it must be paid on 1 December.

Asked about it on Thursday evening, commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, to all intents and purposes said: 'I have no idea what you're on about'.

Several British papers went into overdrive to the tune of the money-grabbing EU snatching coins out of British citizens' very purses.

So by Friday morning Cameron was in a state. He objected to the top-up demand, and the way it had been presented, during the summit with EU colleagues.

The discussion was lively but not unusually so. And Cameron, while clearly irritated, did not refuse to pay the bill.

The press conference afterwards was of a different order though. Once there, he delivered a puce-coloured podium-whacking performance and refused to pay it (at least not by 1 December).

With multiple references to "this organisation" aka the EU (to which UK has belonged for over 40 years now) he was magnificifiently dismissive (a "red herring") of the question of when British officials knew about the surcharge.

It turns out the treasury knew about it on Tuesday, while the UK's own national statistics office has for months been broadly aware of what was coming and UK officials had agreed all rules changes.

But no matter. This was no time for nuance. Asked about whether this would make it likelier that Britain would leave the EU, he opted for post-membership type language.

"I think there is a strong case for Britain being involved in the European Union".

It was rhetoric notched up to an unnecessary degree.

(Backing himself into a corner. Revving up the tabloids. It was remarkably similar to the veto-wielding opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker, the next commission president, he adopted in early summer).

Parallel world

A few hours later, in the same building, but apparently occupying a parallel world, it was Barroso's turn again.

By that time, in contrast to Thursday night, he had been briefed. When the inevitable question came, he was able to haul out a long piece of paper and read out the elaborate rules.

In almost farcical contrast to Cameron's overly politicised performance, Barroso was too technocratic.

The commission response lacked any political feeling. There was no friendly language explaining how the sum was arrived at. Or why it was so large. No overtures on the deadline and how it could be discussed. No language understanding how the timing was difficult.

And yet credit where credit is due.

It is not the surcharge or the blundering communications job that may have moved the UK closer to leaving the EU at the end of the last week as many newspapers are now speculating.

It was David Cameron's hardline response.

The more he opts for the fist-waving, "this-organisation"-bashing approach - the more difficult it is to roll back. And the more difficult it is for his EU colleagues to help elaborate the reformed EU he says he needs ahead of the country's membership referendum.

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