Britain's press 'outraged' by EU bill, ask questions of Cameron

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British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the end of a European Union Summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on October 24, 2014

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the end of a European Union Summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on October 24, 2014 (AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand)

London (AFP) - Britain's newspapers turned on the European Union on Saturday after it demanded 2.1 billion euro ($2.6 billion) in backdated charges, but many questioned why furious Prime Minister David Cameron seemed so shocked by the claim.

"One step nearer the EU exit -- Cameron goes to war on £1.7 BILLION bill," said the Daily Mail's front-page headline.

Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain's membership of the bloc if his Conservative Party wins next year's general election, but has so far said he would campaign to stay in, albeit only after securing reforms.

The Mail said Britain had been "given a huge bill for exceeding expectations in economic recovery" while "under-performing countries such as France are set to receive millions in rebates."

But the paper asked why Cameron had been "kept in the dark about shock demand."

The prime minister ruled out paying the bill -- a recalculation of Britain's contribution based on new accounting measures -- by the December 1 deadline, but the Times warned this could cost the country dear.

"Cameron defies EU over 'wealth tax' as costs spiral," said its headline, adding that Brussels could levy a penalty charge of £42.5 million a month if Britain failed to pay up.

"The United Kingdom is being taxed more heavily not out of a concern for fairness but because of success," said its leading article.

"Growth in Britain has exceeded projections in the past four years, which is not something that can be said of the dysfunctional eurozone.

- Cameron reaction 'disproportionate' -

Centre-right broadsheet The Daily Telegraph called the demand "shocking".

"The idea that the Commission can produce an astronomical figure without properly explaining its origin, and give the UK just a few weeks to pay it, is quite simply outrageous.

"Britain's courage in pursuing austerity. In the past few years the UK has done its best to put the finances in order and has achieved impressive levels of growth, while other countries squandered and slumped. How does the EU reward British prudence? By demanding more money."

But the Financial Times criticised Cameron's angry outburst, and said that the surcharge was reasonable.

"Cameron's outburst on Friday – declaring himself to be "downright angry" – is disproportionate," said its editorial.

"Last year he declared that he would campaign 'with all my heart and soul' for Britain to stay in the club. Today, that declaration is barely believable. Mr Cameron looks like someone who will do anything to save his premiership and his party, whatever the cost to his country."

Cameron is facing pressure from the eurosceptic wing of his party, which fears losing votes to the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

The centre-left Guardian also attacked Cameron's response, and questioned how long he had known about the charge.

"Action to head off the confrontation and to draw its sting could – and should – have been taken. Yet it was not. Why?

"Either Mr Cameron's outrage was synthetic and cynical. Or he and his ministers and officials were asleep on the watch and let it catch them unawares. It is hard to know which is worse."