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Britain claims a disputed triumph in battle over $2.7 billion budget bill with EU

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BRUSSELS — Britain claimed victory on Friday in its standoff with the European Union over a 2.1 billion euro ($2.7 billion) budget contribution, saying it was able to delay and reduce payment.

Others, however, quickly dismissed Britain's boast it had cut its dues in half as an effort to save face, noting the country would eventually pay what it owed.

Last month, the EU reassessed how much each of its 28 member states needs to contribute to its budget and made Britain's top-up the highest, a move Prime Minister David Cameron called "appalling."

Cameron is under pressure at home from groups that want Britain to leave the EU, and the budget controversy only amplified those calls.

After EU finance ministers discussed the budget issue on Friday, a triumphant British Treasury chief, George Osborne, said that the British "have halved the bill. We have delayed the bill. We will pay no interest on the bill."

He said 850 million pounds ($1.36 billion) would be due in two installments by the second half of next year instead of the original Dec. 1 deadline.

"This is far beyond what anyone expected us to achieve," Osborne said.

EU Budget Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, however, noted Britain's bill was trimmed by giving earlier access to a rebate the country was to receive next year anyway.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutchman who chairs eurozone finance minister meetings, confirmed that was the case. He insisted Britain didn't negotiate its contribution down: "No, not at all."

He said there was no reason for Osborne to revel in victory. "It would be crazy for him to do so. He still has to pay a very large sum," he said.

PHOTO: Maltese Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, left, talks with Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, center, and Greek Finance Minister Gikas Chardouvelis, during the EU Finance Ministers meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. EU finance ministers were preparing Friday to hunt for a compromise in a row between Britain and Brussels over budget contributions, with billions of euros at stake. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
Maltese Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, left, talks with Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, center, and Greek Finance Minister Gikas Chardouvelis, during the EU Finance Ministers meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. EU finance ministers were preparing Friday to hunt for a compromise in a row between Britain and Brussels over budget contributions, with billions of euros at stake. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

Even at home, in Cameron's Conservative party, questions were raised over the claim Britain had won a deal to pay less.

Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, said Osborne's claim of victory was "a sham."

And Labour Party finance spokesman Ed Balls accused the government of "smoke and mirrors."

"David Cameron and George Osborne are trying to take the British people for fools," Balls said.

Britain has support from countries like the Netherlands, Cyprus, Malta and a few others, which also saw a big increase in their contributions.

The new payment date is also well after Britain's May 7 general election, when the country's cantankerous relationship with the EU is bound to be a central theme.

The EU is often represented in Britain as a money-sucking bureaucracy that has flooded the country with immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

The Conservative-led British government has promised to seek to revamp the EU and renegotiate Britain's membership on better terms before holding a referendum on the issue in 2017.

During a visit to Finland on Friday, Cameron got support on reforming the EU, too.

But many EU countries, led by Germany and even Britain's usual allies in northern Europe, have shown little enthusiasm for ideas such as restricting the free movement of people within the bloc, a core EU principle.


Jill Lawless in London and Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.

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