EU membership is causing problems for Britain, as what was intended to be an economic partnership is turning into a political project, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has said.
Responding to threats by the Commission that Britain would be forced to pay interest on the £1.7 billion top up currently being demanded, and also to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent doubts over Britain’s continued EU membership, Osborne indicated that he is in favour of remaining within the EU but on renegotiated terms.
His comments came during the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program last night. When asked whether Europe was partly to blame for the British people’s discontent over living standards, Osborne replied: “What’s going on here is driven by the economics. Britain joined the EU as an economic proposition, other countries joined for different reasons.
“When it’s not working economically for Britain, that’s why we get this debate about our membership of the EU and about the nature of that relationship.”
He signalled his loyalty to Prime Minister David Cameron on continued membership of the EU project under renegotiated terms, saying: “I’m someone who wants to stay in the EU . . . but it has to be a reformed European Union.
“I think it is causing problems for us. You see the EU morphing more and more into a Eurozone focussed on the survival of its currency, focussed on the decisions it needs to take to integrate further to make that currency work. That does have an impact on the UK.”
He added that it was right for the UK to say: “This relationship is not working properly for us”.
Membership of the European Union was originally sold to the British public as participation in a free trade block between member states. In the last referendum on the subject, which was staged in 1975, voters agreed to stay in what was then known as the European Economic Community by a margin of 2:1, an outcome hailed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a “historic decision”.
Since then the Union has become increasingly politicised as Member States move towards ever closer integration. Opinion on whether Britain should still remain within the block is now evenly split. A poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft in March of this year, which surveyed more than 20,000 people found the British public evenly split, with 41 percent wanting to withdraw versus 41 percent wanting to stay in.
Discontent over EU membership has been high on the agenda since London was handed a surprise £1.7billion bill from Brussels following calculations showing that the British economy is doing better than expected.
Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons last week that he would not pay “anything like” the amount demanded, but the Commission has warned that failure to pay would incur further ‘interest’ costs of 2.5 percent, rising by 0.25 percent for each month that the bill remained unpaid.
A second front in the European row then opened up over the weekend. Cameron had been touting amendments to the EU principle of Freedom of Movement, generally seen as one of the key principles of the Union, by promising to impose quotas on EU immigration.
But Chancellor Merkel quashed hopes that a deal could be made when she told German paper Der Spiegel that freedom of movement was “essential” to the EU project. She also warned Cameron that he was reaching the “point of no return” on Britain’s continued participation in the Union.
Lord Hill of Oareford, Britain’s new European Commissioner, has warned against strong rhetoric on Europe, telling MPs on the foreign affairs select committee that “there can be a tendency both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe to think and talk in terms of British exceptionalism. Everything always has to be a victory or defeat . . . It’s not healthy.”
But prominent Eurosceptic Member of Parliament Bernard Jenkin urged his Prime Minister to hold his ground, saying: “In my view we actually have to take back control over our borders.” He dismissed Merkel’s warnings as a mere “negotiating position” and called on his leader to call her bluff.