David Cameron often resembles, when vexed, an Englishman of the 1950s who is receiving intolerably bad service in a restaurant on the continent of Europe. Sometimes the problem is that he and his friends have been kept waiting an amazingly long time for their main course. Sometimes, even more embarrassingly, the problem is to do with the bill.
This time the trouble was of the second kind. Mr Cameron suddenly found himself presented by the European Union with a bill for £1.7 billion. Apparently this was for goods already consumed. He and his friends – the compatriots on whom the cost of meeting the outrageously high charge would ultimately fall – were appalled.
Mr Cameron knew he must make a fuss. On behalf of his party and his country, he must say this was unacceptable. His face turned red, and he declared in an angry voice that he was not prepared to pay anything like that amount.
But the whole thing looked bad. The world knew Mr Cameron was not, at heart, a leader like Margaret Thatcher, who would make everyone’s life unbearable until she got an EU rebate. Mr Cameron is an Englishman, who does not like becoming hysterical in defence of his rights, and feels bad until he had reached a settlement which everyone regards as fair.
Yesterday, there came a further, most unexpected development. Mr Cameron’s friend, George Osborne, who had undertaken to conduct the detailed negotiations about the bill with a view to getting it reduced, declared to general astonishment that he had managed to get it cut by half, to a mere £850 million, payable in the second half of 2015 instead of almost immediately.
That is still, of course, a substantial amount of money. It was nevertheless a marvellous relief to have got the amount down below a billion pounds. But could we believe this was Mr Osborne had really managed to do?
The details of the EU’s accounts are unfortunately much more complicated than those of a group of 28 people who have gone together to a restaurant, have made all sorts of prior agreements about who will pay for what, have then consumed very different quantities of food and wine to what had been expected, and afterwards, fuddled by the wine and shocked by the overall cost, have to work out what everyone owes, while all the time hoping that Germany, the richest member of the party, will go on bearing the lion’s share.
Has Mr Osborne really managed, by discovering a rebate which we are owed, to halve our terrible bill? Open Europe weighs up, in a learned blog, the pros and cons of the deal. The version of its assessment which I read last night ends with the words, “We will update this as events unfold, but what a mess.” Yet it seems to think Mr Osborne has achieved considerably more than Nigel Farage is willing to admit.
But an early report put out by Bloomberg News was headlined “UK Fails to Win Budget Payment Cut as EU Defies Cameron”. Yet Ed Conway, on his Sky News blog, wondered why people weren’t acclaiming Mr Osborne’s deal as a victory.
What a confusing subject. But Mr Osborne at least deserves credit for reaching an early settlement. Some of us had feared the Government would let this drag on months, and would look paralysed, and incapable of taking a decision. There was a danger the whole affair would poison relations with other EU members, whose support will be needed in the forthcoming renegotiation, while failing to satisfy those who want the whole £1.7 billion bill cancelled. There has instead been an early settlement, with which both sides seem to be prepared to live.
This is not very glorious, but settling the bill for an expensive and perhaps not even very enjoyable meal is an inherently inglorious activity. The important thing on these occasions is to retain a sense of proportion. However irritating this bill is – and it is in fact very irritating – it is not important compared to the renegotiation which will take place if Cameron is still in power after next May. To attain success in that renegotiation we shall need allies, and to fall out with them now on a question of secondary importance would be perverse.