Tom Evans/Crown Copyright
Well, that escalated quickly! I mean that really got out of hand fast. The phoney war is well and truly over and the triggering of Article 50 has finally inspired open hostility amongst EU leaders and officials. The olive branches offered after Theresa May’s European charm offensive have seemingly been retracted. After the Lancaster House speech, the acceptance that the four freedoms were indivisible, the defence of the EU and NATO in Washington and the commitment to security cooperation there was a definite improvement in the atmosphere and a softening of the tone from our European allies. The early conciliatory sentiment seems to have dissipated – and suddenly.
The Brussels spin machine has been let loose to exploit the political splits in the UK and implement a divide and rule strategy. President Juncker executed a marvellous piece of pre-planned political theatre designed to undermine and embarrass the Prime Minister. It was practically pre-scripted. Take, for example, the spun line that Juncker was astonished by Mrs May’s apparently ignorant proposal that they wrap up an early sub-agreement for citizens rights, which are currently in flux. This was not first mentioned at the meeting, it was formally requested weeks ago so Juncker was well aware of it.
The truth is revealed by Piotr Serafin, chief of staff to EU President Donald Tusk, who said it was “very important not to give the impression that the EU was blocking an early agreement on citizens’ rights”. There we have it; Brussels is spinning for political cover because blocking an early agreement is exactly what they are doing. Theresa May wanted to settle this issue months ago, if it wasn’t for Merkel and other stubborn EU leaders millions of EU nationals and UK nationals abroad could have had their minds put at ease with a principled declaration that their rights would be protected. They didn’t do it because they want to use every bit of leverage they have, yet Europhiles can’t bring themselves to criticise their intransigence on this issue.
The British media should be wary of taking everything that comes out of the Brussels spin machine as the unvarnished truth, and everybody, Leavers and Remainers alike, needs to maintain a healthy sense of scepticism. The EU leaders are playing games and attempting to impose themselves early in the process by dictating the terms, timetable and agenda. Europhiles scoff at the idea, but it was clear that Juncker and Merkel set out to embarrass the Prime Minister in the full knowledge the she is fighting a general election campaign which is most unsportsmanlike. What would they say if it were the other way round?
The sheer theatrical nature of taking Treaties to a private dinner meeting to pull out at an opportune moment shows that Juncker had thought ahead about how the leak would play out in the media. The whole show was premeditated, after the smiles, handshakes and initial positive comments that the talks had been “cordial” and “constructive”, came the flurry of body blows.
Angela Merkel accused “some in Great Britain” (ie the PM) of living under the “illusion” that they could keep the same rights as member states after Brexit. Then came the highly critical account of the Downing Street dinner in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper, which was likely to be based on the account of Juncker’s Head of Cabinet Martin Selmayr. To further rankle Mrs May, Michael Roth, Germany’s finance minister, and Guy Verhofstadt, the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, took to Twitter to criticise and mock the UK.
This is what hardball looks like; this is a political battle and the EU has won this round. Understandably frustrated after taking something of a political battering, Theresa May hit out at European leaders with some very blunt words. Europhiles have been hysterical about this of course, but is the Prime Minister really going to allow herself to look weak and beleaguered amidst an election campaign? Are European leaders really going to be terminally offended and forever turned against her? No, this is politics; they knew what they were doing; posturing and turning the screw. They know what she was doing; electioneering and ensuring she looked like she was standing up for Britain. They know the game, they know the score. “It’s all in the game”, as they saw in The Wire.
So, what comes next? Well, the Conservative Party wins a whopping great majority on June 8th; then she needs to get proactive and grab hold of the agenda. First of all, to lower the temperature, she should give a conciliatory speech in which she reaffirms Britain’s intention to become a steadfast sponsor and ally of the EU, committed to cooperation in all areas and an amicable transition into our new relationship. Reminding the world of Britain’s historic and cultural attachment to the continent, the Prime Minister should wax lyrical about our part in the great European story and our intertwined histories, and insist firmly that Brexit cannot and will not change that. Let us rise above the squabbles and hold out an olive branch once again. We will be with Europe, but not of it, and our alliance is essential and mutually beneficial.
As a signal to the world that Britain is still an open and liberal country, Mrs May should do the right thing and remind everyone in this country that the EU nationals that have come here to live and work have been some of the most industrious, hard working, skilled and talented that Europe has had to offer. To put their mind at rest, she should announce that regardless of what the EU does, the UK government will guarantee their rights, and move to simplify the Permanent Residency application process for them. This rises above the EU’s politicking over the issue and it’s the moral thing to do.
To retake the initiative on the Irish issue, after the EU deliberately strengthened the hands of separatists in Northern Ireland, we must declare that the Common Travel Area will continue regardless of Brexit due to historic, cultural and economic necessity. This means an open border and the Irish continuing to enjoy full rights to live and work in the UK; the Irish issue will be alleviated early in the process and EU officials will obstruct this as their peril.
The UK government should then put some enticing conditional offers on the table. A guarantee that we will pay full budget contributions for the remainder of the current Multiannual Financial Framework will bring significant potential financial relief for EU Member States in the short term. This must come in exchange for an agreement on a framework for transitional arrangements, to smooth the transition from EU membership to our future trade arrangement, and a softening on the current EU stance to refuse parallel talks on the financial settlement and trade.
The financial shortfall that Member States are facing is the pressing issue in Europe, this is a pain point for the EU and strong hand that we hold; so we should show willing to settle the issue amicably and early on. As part of this, the government must steer the domestic debate over the so-called “divorce” settlement into more sensible territory, with the debate on this in the UK becoming ever more ignorant and mediocre.
Crucially, it is not a Brexit bill or “divorce alimony”; it is not a tax or a means of punishing us, we must stop thinking of it in these terms. It is simply a matter of us meeting our financial and legal obligations and tying up loose ends. Much of the money will be paid to maintain our commitment to the joint programmes and projects that we have already agreed to, we must agree to uphold these commitments as long as full participation is guaranteed.
We need to insist upon a blueprint of our future trade and cooperation agreement and a timeframe for its conclusion, without which no financial guarantees can be given. However, if a reasonable number is put on the table, and an early compromise can be reached, we should swallow it in order to facilitate negotiations and avoid them unravelling for years to come. An early agreement on finances will facilitate the difficult first step and allow us to progress towards constructing our new partnership.
With a roadmap to our future relationship in place, we should propose a mutually beneficial transitional phase of three years that effectively means interim membership of the European Economic Area and a mutual recognition customs agreement. This would come with continued Single Market membership, free movement and arbitration from the EFTA court. As part of this, we should insist upon continued passporting for the City and the ability to influence legislation via involvement in the consultative processes and structures embedded in the EEA Agreement.
A phased exit would prevent many months of difficult and risky talks and bring a sense of calm to the markets. For sure this may involve some political hits, but a strong majority gained on June 8th should shield Theresa May from the worst of this and the benefits of a de-risked, economically secure Brexit are far greater than the disadvantages of facing the mudslinging of Brexiteer ultras and the dwindling number of Ukippers.
The outlook may look bleak now, but the mood will change and the trench warfare stage will pass. Thanks to the Cameron government taking the grossly irresponsible decision to make no preparations for one of the two possible outcomes of the EU referendum, the current government was always going to start from a point of weakness.
Since then, they have forever been on the back foot and this week the EU has advanced to pummel us onto the ropes. It’s time to grasp the initiative and push back; this positive and proactive approach has the potential to put Brexit negotiations onto the fast track to success. If European leaders were to try and rebuff us all the way, not even British Europhiles could pretend they were being reasonable.
Ben Kelly is an Executive Director of Conservatives for Liberty.