Germans say Nein to more EU costs

Anger at paying lion's share puts pressure on other member states

Germany's campaign to reform EU finances received a boost from startling figures published yesterday, showing that more than four-fifths of the EU's budget came from German tax-payers.

Citing statistics produced by the European Commission, the respected financial daily Handelsblatt reported that 81.9 per cent of net contributions to the community had originated in Germany last year. The previous estimates had put the German share of the common burden to between 50 and 60 per cent.

But, according to Handelsblatt, this does not take account of costs associated with agricultural surpluses, and lost customs revenue, diverted from national capitals to Brussels. If these are taken into account, then three EU member states are revealed to be the biggest net contributors.

Others in this unlucky group are the Netherlands with 9.3 per cent of net contributions, and Sweden with 4.1 per cent. Most of the rest, including Britain, France and Belgium, are net gainers.

Reaction to these statistics was swift. "This sensationally high net share shows even more clearly that German EU contributions have to be reduced," said Ingrid Matthaus-Maier, the Social Democrats' budget spokeswoman.

While the finance ministry in Bonn questioned the accuracy of the latest estimates, there was no disputing the sentiment that Germany was paying too much for European solidarity.

"Germany's net contributions have got out of proportion in the last few years," Klaus Kinkel, the foreign minister, admitted last week, adding that the government and parliament were trying to correct the system's flaws. "The aim is a fairer distribution of the burden among the EU member states," Mr Kinkel said.

Some of the expenses, argues the German government, are understandable, because Germany is partly compensated by hidden gains. Mr Kinkel said Germany would always pay more than other members as it was the main beneficiary from the EU's single market - the destination for 75 per cent of German exports.

But there is a limit, even to the patience of Bonn's Europhiles. With budgets having to be cut everywhere, mainly to help launch European monetary union, the DM140bn (pounds 46bn) net cost of German membership in the EU between 1991 and 1996 rankles.

The Germans are rich, but not that rich. Countries such as Denmark and Luxembourg, well ahead of Germany in the league table of wealth, are made richer still by German tax-payers.

Aware of increasing hostility to all things European, the government is beginning to act. With the prospect of new, poorer, countries joining the EU, a reform of the community's budget is inevitable.

The German proposals call for a redistribution of member countries' payments in line with their GDP.

The current rich beneficiaries - Luxembourg, Denmark and Belgium - would have to start pulling their weight. The contributions of Britain, France and the Netherlands would be raised.

Not surprisingly, Bonn's idea of reform has not gone down very well in Brussels or in the capitals hardest hit.

But the German cry of "We want our money back" will not be silenced. Even if, as a German commentator lamented yesterday, "there is no Margaret Thatcher in Bonn".

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