One can’t shake the impression that the EU is trying to fleece Britain not so much for economic reasons as for punitive ones. There’s also the ulterior motive of tangling the negotiations up indefinitely, turning Brexit step by excruciating step into an unrealisable abstraction.
To wit, two recent developments:
The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox apparently received a blackmail note and recoiled with horror. The threat was too awful to contemplate:
“Pay attention, Liam, because I’m only going to say this once. We’ve got Britain and, if you ever want to see her alive again, put £50 billion under the rain barrel outside your Westminster house tonight. And remember: no funny business or Britain will get it. Signed: the EU.”
At the same time David Davis, the Secretary of State for Brexit, filed for divorce from his marriage to Europe, citing loss of sovereignty, his spouse’s excessive bossiness and his own desire to return to his past bachelor ways.
In response, the plaintiff has received a list of demands from the defendant’s solicitor Michel Barnier: “Sale con d’anglais! My client has been suffering for years from your mental cruelty and lack of loyalty, but no? Ze settlement will have to reflect zis a priori, in extremis and in toto. We want 50 billion pounds (or euros, pas de différence these days) up front and your continued commitment to every projet vert – that’s green project to you – ever mentioned in Brussels, Strasbourg or Berlin. If you refuse, we’ll tie you up in litigation for as many years as it takes for you to decide zat perhaps a divorce isn’t such a good idea after all. Say oui, or no deal, you espèce de merde britannique.”
Now I have a confession to make. Though Dr Fox did mention that the EU was trying to blackmail Britain, and Mr Davis does talk about Brexit in the terms normally reserved for nuptial divorce, neither man has received such a missive. The spirit of the EU’s demands, however, may not be far from the letter of those two notes, so the temptation to draw a direct parallel with blackmail or divorce may be hard to resist.
But it must be resisted. For the situation is neither blackmail nor divorce, and the use of such terms has a large potential for obfuscation.
Blackmail presupposes extortion by issuing a realistic threat. The blackmailer finds himself in an ad hoc position of power and uses it to force compliance with his demands.
So whence does the EU’s power come? What realistic threat is hanging like the sword of Damocles over Britain’s head?
Suppose Liam Fox responds that, as far as Britain is concerned, her association with the EU is summarily at an end.
We’ve paid enough entrance and membership fees over the years not to have to pay an exit fee as well. As to all those green, red, pink, rainbow and other variously coloured projects from the EU palette, we’ll assess each one separately on its merits. If we wish to participate, we shall. If we don’t, we shan’t. In neither case can this be a precondition for Brexit.
What’s the worst that could happen? The EU will refuse to trade with us? Impose stiff tariffs on British goods?
That would be cutting off their trade nose to spite their economic face, for Britain would obviously respond in kind. German manufacturers are already moaning that all this Brexit toing and froing is hurting their business. What are they going to say if, due to their government’s stupid intransigence, the damage grows tenfold? They do have business lobbies in Europe that can get bloody-minded, especially around election time.
The level of trade tariffs is regulated by the WTO, and I doubt the EU would wish to flout those rules or especially leave the WTO as a result. Yes, since the EU is an ideological entity rather than an economic one, it’s capable of causing mutual damage pour encourager les autres. But that falls far short of being a deadly threat, especially when Britain’s ancient constitution is at stake.
Blackmail is thus not a precise term. Neither is divorce.
Divorce presupposes an equitable division of both assets and liabilities. So far I haven’t heard one word about the portion of EU assets to which Britain is entitled as the second largest net contributor to EU coffers. All one hears is hissing about the money Britain supposedly owes.
Hence this isn’t a normal divorce but again a kind of shakedown attempt, with the supposed plaintiff bearing all the brunt of the separation. The only logical response would be a demand that terminological precision be restored.
Britain leaves the EU effective immediately, while two teams of lawyers wrangle at their leisure about the assets and liabilities, and how they are to be divided. They can take their time; there’s no particular rush. Meanwhile, Britain and the EU will live their separate lives.
To move from the metaphors of blackmail and divorce to an amorous simile, the so-called Brexit negotiations are like a sexless man pretending to be making love to a sexless woman. Neither of them wants a consummation, but they both go through the motions for the hell of it.
EU laws are drafted for the purpose of making exit inordinately difficult. There exist a myriad casuistic details that can never be worked out, and certainly not within any kind of limited time. That renders pre-Brexit negotiations counterproductive.
Negotiations are only possible when both parties are seeking a speedy and successful conclusion. The EU definitely seeks nothing of the sort, and it increasingly appears that neither does our government, where the two top positions are held by Remainers.
Hence all the talk about negotiations, blackmail, divorce, soft Brexit, transition period and so forth amounts to nothing but a delaying ploy. That whole mass of details will never be worked out because it’s designed not to be.
The only way for HMG to show that it really intends to comply with the people’s wishes is to take an immediate French leave. (Which, appropriately, is called filer à l’anglaise in French.)
And, while banging the door, we should make it clear that Britain won’t be fleeced, certainly not by a bunch of jumped up bureaucrats with learning difficulties and delusions of grandeur.