The EU is charging us £50 billion just to leave? How dare they! Well, if we’re leaving, there is no reason why we should have to pay. Let’s shove their Brexit divorce bill right up their common external tariff.
I was a Remainer, and even I was angered by chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s demand in December that Britain pay such a hefty penalty for leaving. It seemed petty, resentful, and unnecessarily antagonistic. And now that Article 50 has been triggered and the formal process of negotiating our exit has finally begun, I can see why some British people are furious of the EU’s threats that no talks can begin until we’ve settled our tab.
But then I looked at what that “divorce bill” actually is. And suddenly my rage felt a lot less justified. Essentially, that £50 billion figure represents money Britain has already committed to the EU. It covers things like salaries and pension liabilities for EU staff – our EU staff, I should add – which can’t be instantaneously cut off just because we’re leaving. These people still have jobs (for now) and even when they don’t, like any good employer we owe them the benefits they have earned up.
The rest is for projects the EU green-lighted while the UK was still a full member. The EU budget framework covers seven years. That means when annual EU budgets are set and new initiatives are costed, they are done so in the context of a seven-year cycle that considers how much money will be coming in (from member state contributions) and how much has been pledged to ongoing projects. The EU made decisions – with our participation and consent – that rely on Britain’s contributions up to the end of the current cycle, which is 2020. All they are asking is that we continue to contribute what we have already pledged.
In the context of a “divorce” (which is how Brexit is increasingly being viewed), that’s like continuing to pay child-support – except that, unlike child-support, it ends after just three years. But the divorce metaphor really only goes so far. It makes much more sense to think of Brexit like negotiating the termination of a contract (which what it actually is). In a business scenario, if one party has committed a certain amount of money over a set period, and decisions have been made on the basis of that money, that contribution is not up for debate – especially if, as is the case here, the leaving party had a seat at the table when that funding was allocated.
So why has such a momentous fuss been made about our exit bill? For this, I blame the EU, and Michel Barnier in particular. Not for expecting that money of course – the EU is entitled to it – but for demanding it in such an aggressive way and implying it was a penalty fine for leaving. If he hadn’t mentioned it, I have no doubt Theresa May, who by all accounts is a stickler for the rules, would have quietly paid it without question. This is the point she alluded to in her interview with Andrew Neil on Wednesday night, when she said Britain was a “law-abiding nation” and would meet its “obligations”.
There really wasn’t a question of whether or not Britain would pay what it owes until the EU negotiators brought it up. That, of course, sparked the ire of the ultra-Brexiteers who believe the UK won’t be fully freed from the EU until we brick up the Euro Tunnel and purge the English dictionary of French words. This small but incessantly loud minority of Leavers really does want Britain to walk away with no deal whatsoever, and will latch on to any hint that the EU is treating us unfairly to amplify their calls for a detrimentally hard Brexit. A punishment bill of £50 billion plays right into their hands.
But the rest of us shouldn’t have been fooled – after all, Theresa May wasn’t. So let’s repeat our commitment to paying what we have already agreed to pay, and move on to the million more important issues of negotiating our future relationship with the EU. These negotiations are too important to be stalled on a trivial technicality.