The British prime minister hijacked a European summit that was meant to be focused on the continent’s stalling economy, demanding an emergency meeting of finance ministers to tackle his concerns.
“I am not paying that bill on the first of December. If people think that is going to happen they’ve got another thing coming,” Cameron told a news conference, thumping the lectern and going red in the face as he spoke.
“We are not suddenly going to take out our chequebook and write a cheque for two billion euros ($2.5 billion), it is not happening.”
The clash stole the limelight from a landmark EU deal on climate change targets for 2030 and a pledge to give one billion euros in aid to west Africa to combat the Ebola virus.
It renews questions over Britain’s vexed membership of the 28-member European Union, which Cameron has vowed to put to a referendum in 2017, if he wins a general election next May.
Cameron insisted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Dutch premier Mark Rutte and the leaders of Greece, Malta and other countries hit by similar but smaller EU bills had supported him.
He quoted Renzi as saying of the bill: “This isn’t a figure, this is a lethal weapon”.
Adding insult to injury in British eyes, France will be owed 1.0 billion euros by the EU while Germany, the bloc’s most powerful and richest economy, gets a rebate of 779 million euros.
The new bills are based on a revision in the way in which the economic output of EU states is measured to include previously hidden elements such as drugs and prostitution, and the overall economic situation of each country.
Cameron insisted repeatedly that Britain, one of the largest contributors to the EU budget, had been treated unacceptably, with the demand coming virtually out of the blue from the European Commission.
He said the EU “should not be surprised when some of its members say it cannot continue like that and that it has got to change”.
Cameron offered the referendum in a bid to stave off a growing threat to his Conservative party from the British eurosceptic leader Nigel Farage, whose party earlier this month won its first seat in the British parliament.
Farage said the demand showed the EU was a “thirsty vampire” and demanded action from Cameron.
Festering in the background is long-standing resentment in some EU states that Britain has retained a big budget rebate obtained by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because the British economy was then relatively weak.
The clash overshadowed another battle over budgets, this time involving France and Italy, which have said they will break new EU spending rules created to avoid a repetition of the eurozone debt crisis.
Renzi threw a firecracker into the process overnight when he said he would make public the cost of the European institutions amid the row over Rome’s budget.
“We will publish data on everything that is spent by these palaces. We’re going to have some fun,” Renzi said, after Italy published a letter from the EU on its budget breaches.
EU leaders also discussed a promise by incoming European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to unveil a 300-billion-euro ($380-billion) investment plan by Christmas.
Meanwhile the EU agreed to up its aid for the fight against Ebola in west Africa to one billion euros, as well as naming an Ebola “czar”, the incoming Cypriot Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides.
The EU was also hailing its deal overnight for what it called the world’s most ambitious climate change targets for 2030, paving the way for a new UN-backed global treaty in Paris next year.
The 28 leaders overcame deep divisions to agree on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent compared to 1990 levels. They also agreed on 27-percent targets for renewable energy supply and efficiency gains.