The EU divorce bill is just getting silly now. In March I wrote that we should pay it and get on with it, pointing out that the money – at the time £50 billion – was for paying the pensions of our own EU staff and contributing to projects Britain has already committed to funding. Back then, I thought it was reasonable that Britain should pay what we owe and honour the commitments we made to our own employees in Brussels, but felt that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion, mostly by the eurocrats (Michel Barnier in particular) trying to stir up trouble.
That has all changed with the Financial Times’ report today that the bill has mysteriously risen to €100 billion (£84 billion) on the basis of… well, because they feel like it. Alex Barker of the FT reports:
“Following direct requests from several member states, EU negotiators have revised their calculations to maximise the liabilities Britain is asked to cover, including post-Brexit farm payments and EU administration fees in 2019 and 2020.”
The report goes on to to say that “estimates are highly variable”, that the current approach “requires upfront payment for contingent guarantees and loans to countries such as Ukraine and Portugal”, and that Germany is against granting Britain a share of EU assets – assets that we obviously helped pay for. And so, despite my vote for Remain and my generally warm feelings towards the EU, I find myself on the side of hardline Brexiteers marvelling at the audacity of such a ridiculous stance.
Not just the audacity, but the counter-productive short-sightedness. EU leaders may be frequently accused of being trapped in their bubbles, but even they must have noticed that there is an election campaign on in the UK at the moment. How can Theresa May respond to such an unreasonable demand, other than to vociferously refuse to pay it? Which is of course what she has done, promising to be a “bloody difficult woman” in talks with EU negotiators and sending Brexit secretary David Davis out on TV today to remind the EU that “we are not supplicants”.
In a parallel universe, the EU team is calmly negotiating with Theresa May in private, putting together a realistic assessment of what Britain should pay to honour its commitments, taking into account the assets to which we have already contributed. There are tensions and disagreements on both sides, but these are not aired in public, as the room is full of sensible people who know the dangers of turning a business negotiation into a trial in the court of public opinion. A reasonable figure is quietly agreed upon, and Britain commits to paying it without too much fuss, knowing a functional trade deal is in the works. The compromises made on both sides do not get splashed about in foreign newspapers as triumphant battle victories or humiliating losses. In short, everyone deals with the issue like adults, as opposed to children bickering over pocket money.
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Alas, that is not the universe in which we live, and it has just got personal. Theresa May has been called “delusional”, and now she has no choice but to come out fighting. There may turn out to be sound arguments for the €100 billion, or there may not, but we will never know now that any sense of nuance or accuracy has been sacrificed to white-hot emotion. The EU just wrecked their chance of getting a fair “divorce settlement”, and have succeeded only in intensifying the British people’s World War Two mentality to the point where they may well risk not getting a penny, which will put quite a hole in their finances. Meanwhile former Remainers like me watch on in despair as any hopes of a mutually-benefifically trade agreement, a deal on the City of London and a friendly future relationship are blown to smithereens.
Only two more years to go.