So, as we all know, the EU has slapped a demand on the UK for an extra £1.7bn. This sum is so eye-watering that it is hard to make sense of it. I find it helpful to think of what it translates into locally. In round terms it means the residents of Cheltenham alone are being asked to stump up £3m on top of the £15m we already pay as a town to the EU each year.
Even £3m is a huge sum of money. Just imagine what we could do with it. We could transform our dilapidated railway station, encouraging jobs and prosperity to our town. We could give our hardworking staff at Cheltenham General and in our local NHS a pay rise. We could even help out our local schools, like Balcarras which I visited last week, which have had sixth-form funding squeezed. The options are endless.
And that’s why the reaction of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats has left so many Cheltonians astonished. Cheltenham’s Lib Dem MP suggests airily that we should be relaxed about paying £8.6bn to the EU because it is “barely 1 per cent” of government spending. But that ignores what a colossal sum this actually represents. £8.6bn is the cost of at least ten new state-of-the-art hospitals. It would pay for thousands of extra service personnel for our stretched armed forces. It could even fund the desperately needed ‘missing link’ road scheme at the Air Balloon roundabout 30 times over. To imply that it is small beer is a bit rich.
Just as importantly, the Lib Dems also fail to point out how we are expected to pay for it. The bottom line is that the only option left to us is more borrowing. As a country we are still living beyond our means. Labour’s Great Recession means we are still borrowing around £100bn of the £732bn total we spend annually. In other words, paying up means corroding our national finances further. Because let’s face it – for all the excellent news about jobs and growth, the nation’s credit card is maxed out. We now pay more on servicing our national debt than we do on defence.
So I believe we can’t afford to be so casual about this bill. David Cameron is right to be cross about it. It is an unacceptable way for the EU to work and it is also an unacceptable way to treat one of the biggest contributors. There needs to be an emergency meeting of finance ministers to discuss what has happened.
The people of Britain expect our Prime Minister to leave no stone unturned in scrutinizing this bill and fighting for a fair deal for our country. I believe the people of Cheltenham do too.