Now that the trigger has been pulled, the EU27 and the United Kingdom have begun the public posturing over the Brexit negotiations. So far this is not looking encouraging. Theresa May’s warm words about wanting a ”deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU” to include ”both economic and security cooperation” seem to have been, bizarrely, interpreted as a threat. The EU continues to insist that we have to settle the outline of the ‘exit deal’ before we can discuss what we are exiting to. They have thrown a hand-grenade into the negotiating process by appearing to want to blackmail us over Gibraltar.
As with many divorces, the parties start out claiming they want an amicable settlement, but as the specifics emerge, matters get less and less amicable. Often money becomes the focus of the bitterness, and the Brexit negotiations look well set to be no exception. The EU27 have done nothing to dampen down speculation that they are looking for an exit payment in the region of €60bn, which they claim is legally due. To make it worse, they are holding out for this to be agreed before we can even begin to discuss anything like a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU. So far the UK government has not risen to the bait; however, the House of Lords Brexit committee argued convincingly, in a recent report, that the UK has no legal obligation to pay anything at all.
Whatever the exact legal position, there is no possibility of the UK paying anything even remotely like €60bn, or even half that. It would be politically impossible to agree a sum which is several times what we pay each year as full members, no matter how it is dressed up or phased. Equally, though, the EU27 seem to have manoeuvred themselves into a negotiating position where they cannot do a deal which doesn’t involve a chunky exit payment. Amongst the diverse positions of the 27 EU countries, that is one thing which both net contributors and net recipients agree on. By making such a public show of it, they have made it politically very hard to draw back and agree a reasonable sum which the UK might be able to agree to. Although, logically, this shouldn’t be a major stumbling block, politically it has been set up to be so.
All this means that an acrimonious breakdown of the Brexit negotiations is quite possible, even likely, as the war of words causes attitudes to harden on both sides.
However, opposition parties rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a Brexit disaster being blamed by voters on Theresa May are badly misjudging how a breakdown of relations with the EU27 would play out in the UK. The PM has been consistent in wanting a good deal for both sides, but demands for a ludicrously high payment by the EU27, explicit mention by some EU politicians of wanting to ‘punish’ the UK, and above all a deliberate refusal to agree a mutually beneficial trade deal in time for the end of the two-year Article 50 period, would cause a polarisation of views in the UK – with most voters siding with the PM against what would look like egregious bullying by the EU. If voters are forced to choose between backing her as she stands up for plucky Britain against unreasonable demands, or seeming to side with vindictive EU bullies against Britain, she and the Conservatives will be the net political beneficiaries. The other parties (apart from the SNP) would be forced to support her, or risk looking unpatriotic. The question would simplify down to: whose side are you on?
A Brexit Breakdown would be a disaster for the UK, as well as for the EU27 – but in purely party-political terms it wouldn’t be a disaster for the Conservative Party.