Open Europe Blog

Aside from the headline figure, where it looks as though David Cameron will get his cut, in terms of domestic politics, the next most important aspect of all of this is how the UK’s contributions to the budget will be affected. In other words, will the UK still be forced to send more cash to Brussels?

As we predicted back in October, the net contribution was always set to go up – so that isn’t really news (though we appreciate that not everyone follows this issue on a daily basis…)

Here are the details:

Net contribution:

Despite securing a real terms cut to the EU budget, the UK’s net contribution (what it pays in to the EU after the cash it gets back and rebate are taken into account) is still likely to go up under this proposal (see our earlier detailed explanation of this effect, which was with an earlier budget proposal in mind, but the broad dynamic still applies).

Essentially, because the share of the EU budget going to the new member states – the ones that have joined the EU since 2004 – will increase, and since the UK gets no rebate on this spending, the UK’s net contribution will go up. As we’ve argued, this isn’t a bad thing as it’s in the new member states that this cash can make a difference. Still, this could prove politically sticky for the UK Government when explaining the figures to MPs and the Opposition in the months to come – though David Cameron is likely to heap the blame on Tony Blair (with some justification) for giving up part of the rebate in 2005.

Gross contribution:

This is rather more complicated. Under the deal that looks set to be agreed, the budget is falling in real terms, hence the UK gross contribution should fall in real terms. However, there are two potential issues to be aware of:

Firstly, the likely new payments ceiling of €908bn is higher than the actual payments that have been made under the current budget (i.e. the UK’s base-line of €886bn based on an extrapolation of 2011 payments, which we explain here). Historically, ‘actual payments’ fall short of the ‘payments ceiling’. But if, under the new budget, the actual payments hit the ceiling, it is possible that the UK’s actual gross contribution could top the ones seen under this budget framework (€908bn is higher than €886bn) – it seems unlikely but is possible. Again, this is nothing new, but a function of the Government’s starting position.

Secondly, because this would be the first time the budget has been cut, and because of the way the budget (MFF) is structured into ‘commitments’ and ‘payments’, there could be unexpected effects.

As we explained here, actual payments ‘trail’ commitments (or promises to pay). In the context of an ever-increasing budget, this doesn’t present a practical problem, because extra funds can always be pledged to meet previous commitments. But now we have a situation where payments are falling well below the level of the commitments that the EU is able to make under the current budget, potentially creating a deficit. The current compromise is also predicated on deeper cuts to payments than to commitments.

But, as the Commission is always at pains to point out, the EU’s bills need to be paid – under the current budget this has already led to so-called ‘amending budgets’ (albeit within the MFF ceilings) to increase payments to match previous commitments. How much of an issue this might be in the next budget period, remains an uncertain question as it depends on the ‘commitment profile’ (i.e. what/when has the EU promised to pay for specific projects).

In theory, the MFF payment ceilings that are being agreed now cannot be altered unless there is unanimous agreement, as it essentially means re-opening the MFF. For example, in 2011, funds were ‘redeployed’ to fund a shortfall for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), although, in this case, this didn’t mean increasing the payment ceiling. The current rules say that ceilings can be revised by 0.03% of EU GNI for ‘unforeseen’ expenditure. More than this would seem to require unanimity.

Therefore, this second tension between commitments and payments described above, could potentially lead to immense pressure to increase the payment ceiling further down the road. In this hypothetical, albeit not implausible scenario, the UK’s ability to block this could be one for the EU and FCO lawyers to thrash out.

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