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UK networks, and British intelligence, must have known about the coming EC budget demand

The European Commission is a security sieve. Any proposal that will be put before the 28 Commissioners and has a significant political impact will have been tracked by the Foreign ministries and/or security services of every Member State at every stage of its development, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

The leakiest part of the Commission are normally the private offices (cabinets) of the Commissioners. Although supposedly loyal to the Commission, Commissioners are placed in the unenviable position of being informal representatives of their own member state’s interests at the EU level. Hence communication between individual cabinets and their respective capitals is a highly developed process carried out on many levels.

The UK Commissioner’s cabinet would normally have taken a great deal of interest in the proposals, once they were made aware of them. Bound by internal confidentiality, Baroness Ashton and her immediate staff they are unable to comment. However, it would be ludicrous to suggest that they did not flag up with London that there may be a budget issue arising in the near future that would require London’s full attention.

This is underpinned by other levels of information/consultation between the Commission’s services. For instance, the 28 heads of cabinet meet weekly (known as the Hebdo) to discuss forthcoming matters of importance to the commission and especially to  discuss significant proposals going before the Commissioners. 

Below this, Director-Generals have their own informal network. As do the policy advisors of each Director-General, these Director-Generals’ assistants also have a weekly networking meeting. There are also structural consultations between ad hoc groups of Directorate-Generals (DGs) known as consulting ‘associated services’.  A particular DG’s policy might impact on another DG’s policy field therefore internal consultations must take place before a final document emerges.

Added to these internal processes, the budgetary proposal would have to be funnelled through the Secretariat-General of the Commission and the Commission’s legal service would, no doubt, have been contacted for their view.

In parallel to all of this the UK’s finance ministry (Treasury) would have cultivated informal contacts with DG Budget and DG Ecfin (Economy and Finance), including with the UK nationals working for the respective DGs. To believe that the Treasury had no inkling of the demand for a large increase in budget contributions is simply not plausible.

Hence the idea that a demand for 2.1 billion euros could suddenly appear out of the ether without anybody in the UK knowing about it is simply ludicrous. David Cameron’s mock outrage on the 22 October after a Brussels ‘summit’ was (initially) a masterclass in obfuscation, sophistry and downright deceit. 

As soon as the proposal to reallocate budget contributions amongst member states was finalised by Directorate-General Budget, the UK should have been aware of what the proposals contained. There are simply too many people in the Commission that are involved in formulating such a major initiative with profound political consequences. 

This proposal would have been of great interest to all member states and would, with no doubt whatsoever, have been communicated to all 28 capitals by multifarious sources within the Commission. This would have taken the form of messages sent direct to foreign and finance ministries or via the offices of each member state’s permanent representation in Brussels. With the size of the refund to France, the lines of communication from Brussels to Paris would have been clogged with people trying to pass on the good news.

For the UK, like other large member states, the electronic monitoring of internal communications within the commission would also have flagged up the issue well before any public pronouncement would have been made.

Notwithstanding that the final calculations were based on figures supplied by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS), the then UK Treasury Minister, Nicky Morgan, wrote to the prestigious House of Lords EU Committee in March of this year that the UK’s budget contribution would increase significantly because of the recalculations submitted to the EU’s statistical agency Eurostat.

The pro-European former Conservative cabinet minister Ken Clarke raised a laugh when he addressed the House of Commons on Monday and said: “May I first of all sympathise with the prime minister by being taken by surprise on a subject which everybody in the Foreign Office and the Treasury must have known was coming along for the last five months”. 

The European Commission’s budget commissioner, Jacek Dominik, voiced surprise on Monday at British Prime Minister David Cameron’s intemperate reaction. “I was surprised by the reaction because … up to this moment there was no single signal from the UK administration that they had problems with this figure,” Commissioner Jacek Dominik told reporters. (emphasis added). 

Mr Dominik went on to state that the UK government has already had “two formal possibilities to react” and that “at none of those meetings” had it expressed “any concern”.

He also said: “We all agree on the methodology and the elements that are included in the contributions and we simply apply them. Never in the past was there a situation that such a decision was changed and implementation regulations have been changed because one of the member states has contested and… it would be extremely difficult to do it.” He went on to say “if you open this act for future negotiations you open up a Pandora’s box”. 

This is all highly inconvenient for David Cameron. The messages emanating from London are completely at odds with what the Commission is saying. 

Driven entirely by domestic political considerations, David Cameron’s UK Conservative party is utterly focussed on an upcoming by-election where their main rivals, the UK Independence party (UKIP) appear to be heading for victory. Having already lost one Tory MP to UKIP and looking like they will lose another, the party leadership is is in a state of high dudgeon about other Tory MPs defecting to UKIP before the May 2015 general election.

What compounds this scenario, is the already high likelihood that the Tories will fail to win an outright majority at the election, even under a first-past-the-post system. A successful surge from UKIP (winning between 10 and 30 seats) would lead to the end of David Cameron as party leader.

Hence, the Tories are currently solely motivated with defeating UKIP on the 20th November. All UK government actions will have to be viewed through this prism for the next three weeks. Cameron believes that by being seen to be ‘standing up to Brussels’ he can blunt UKIP’s appeal with voters. 

Was the current row about the extra budget contribution a failure of British intelligence at so many levels? Or the UK government knew all along and wanted to pick a fight? 

The only position that the UK Government currently holds about the controversy that garners some sympathy is that the demand to pay 2.1 billion euros by the 1st of December is crass and has all the political subtlety of ‘a flying brick’.

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