Monday

22nd Apr 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit: Between a rock and a hard place

  • A messy and expensive divorce because of pig-headed nationalism on both sides of the Channel would stymie the interests of millions. (Photo: CGP Grey)

The average divorce is expensive in both cash and emotional terms. Neither side wants to show any sign of weakness or compromise. The first few days of the post-Article 50 suggest that Brexit will follow the pattern.

The first impasse is over who pays. The EU says the Brexit bill must be settled before any talks can begin on a new trade agreement. The European Parliament’s resolution contends that Britain should not be given a free-trade deal by the EU in the next two years, while any transitional arrangement to cushion the UK’s exit after 2019 could last no longer than three years.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

For their part, hard Brexiteers have been cheered by a House of Lords committee report in March, which argued that the UK would not be "legally obliged" to pay a penny to cover any post-2019 liabilities.

Until Article 50 talks formally begin everything and nothing is on the table, which partly explains this week’s pointless furore over the potential status of Gibraltar.

The reference to Gibraltar in EU draft negotiating guidelines was apparently added at the 11th hour after the Spanish government noticed that the status of the Rock had not been mentioned in Theresa May’s Article 50 letter.

Michael Howard, a former Conservative Party leader, compared the potential dispute over Gibraltar with the 1982 Falklands War.

“I can see no harm in reminding them what kind of people we are,” Howard told Channel 4 news.

The chances of the British navy sending a few gun boats to fight a 21st century Armada are, fortunately, rather slim, although no kind of neo-colonial revivalism can be completely ruled out from a government in which Boris Johnson is foreign minister.

Even so, this kind of talk is going to be a constant frustration to serious people for the next two years.

Provocation from hard-core Brexiteers doesn’t help May’s ministers in their bid to make allies. ‘Gibraltar-gate’ has already derailed a visit to Spain by Brexit minister David Davis.

No accident

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that Howard’s rhetoric was an accident. 

He is part of the group of eurosceptics who wanted the UK to fall back on a World Trade Organisation (WTO) arrangement with the EU. Inflammatory rhetoric which provokes one country or more in the EU-27, reduces the chances of an amicable divorce and makes it more likely that EU leaders will mothball any talks on a successor trade agreement. 

Having spent a generation blaming "eurocrats" for the ills of the world, the Conservative right wants to be able to pin the blame for a "punishment" Brexit on its old foe.

A majority of Conservative MPs would be quite comfortable with talks collapsing, and are already preparing the media ground for trade on WTO terms. Five Tory MPs on the cross-party Brexit committee in the UK Parliament disowned its latest report which demanded that the government provide some economic evidence to back up its assertion that "no deal is better than a bad deal". 

Faced with this, EU politicians must decide if they are going to rise above the bravado or respond in kind.

Manfred Weber, the EPP group leader in the European Parliament, appears to have chosen the latter, issuing dark threats of the UK financial services sector losing its status as a euro-clearing house.

“From now on we will have the interests of the EU27 in mind and not anymore of the British side,” said Weber in Strasbourg this week. “Leaving the EU … means to be alone.”

The problem when negotiations descend into a shouting match is that the voices of moderation get drowned out. If that happens, Brexit will be expensive. 

At their distinctly low-key meeting in Downing Street on Thursday, May and European Council president Donald Tusk agreed to "lower tensions" - a welcome return to sanity.

No winners

Frustrating as Brexit Britain is to the rest of Europe, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was correct in his assessment on Wednesday that “no deal would be the worst-case scenario. There would be no winners.”

When you sweep aside the hyperbole, UK ministers and civil servants are correct when they insist that there is an obvious trade and political agreement to be struck with the EU.

The EU relies on access to London’s financial services, just as the UK cannot really afford to fall back on import and export tariffs with its largest trading partner.

Obtaining this will require political will and compromise on both sides - but would be mutually beneficial.

A messy and expensive divorce because of pig-headed nationalism on both sides of the Channel would stymie the interests of millions. As Juncker put it, “everybody will lose.”

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer 

EU rounds wagons in Gibraltar dispute

Spectacle of EU institutions and 27 remaining member states taking a common line against an outgoing member is a first in EU history.

EU guidelines set out two-phase Brexit talks

According to the draft negotiating guidelines, the EU-27 would open negotiations on future EU-UK relations when "sufficient progress" has been made on citizens' rights, the British financial bill and the status of the border in Ireland.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Don't copy us, we're British

The havoc caused by the unexpected referendum result on June 23 could serve as a stark warning to the EU-27: fail to prepare - prepare to fail.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

Juncker to visit May in London next week

The British prime minister invited the European Commission president for a discussion about the upcoming EU exit negotiations, while she prepares for general elections on 8 June with a "hard" Brexit agenda.

How Brexit may harm the new EU parliament

British plans to - maybe - take part in EU elections risk legal chaos in the next European Parliament, which could be resolved only by treaty change - an unlikely prospect.

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  2. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  3. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  4. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  9. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  10. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan

Latest News

  1. Romania drafts EU code on NGO migrant rescues
  2. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Malta shamed on press unfreedom
  3. EU drafts $20bn US sanctions list in aviation dispute
  4. Brunei defends stoning to death of gay men in EU letter
  5. US Democrats side with Ireland on Brexit
  6. Wifi or 5G to connect EU cars? MEPs weigh in
  7. How Brexit may harm the new EU parliament
  8. EU parliament backs whistleblower law

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  6. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  7. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  9. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  12. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us