When it comes to Brexit talks, it's about the money


Picture of Corrado Pirzio-Biroli
Corrado Pirzio-Biroli

Executive Chairman of the Rural Investment Support for Europe (RISE) Foundation and former European commission official

Time for the EU to be tough

Corrado Pirzio-Biroli is a former European Commission official who served in the private offices of Commission president Gaston Thorn and agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler

The European Union never wanted a ‘hard’ Brexit. The British government, under Prime Minister Theresa May, chose it without consultation and convinced a reluctant Parliament.

May brought into her government die-hard ‘Leave’ supporters who can continue to rely on the Eurosceptic media and who make hay with the result of the binary referendum. So it is hard to see how one can please the British government without bringing into question the EU’s structures and body of law (and causing havoc within the EU).

It’s time to be tough: if Britain unexpectedly ends up remaining within the single market, it should be granted none of the opt-outs it had obtained in the past (which were testimony to the EU’s efforts to keep the UK on board, no matter the difficulties these exceptions caused).

But this is not about ‘punishing’ the UK for following a democratic mandate. Brussels – whose main purpose is to uphold EU law and to keep its troops together in difficult circumstances – has simply noted that the referendum did not indicate that a majority wanted a hard Brexit. Brussels has now to react to May’s personal interpretation of the result and her aggressive decision (which Giles Merritt calls “baffling”) to go the hard way despite the lack of a national consensus.

It’s time to be tough: if Britain unexpectedly ends up remaining within the single market, it should be granted none of the opt-outs it had obtained in the past

It is May’s position, not the referendum result, that has antagonised people in Europe, occurring as it does after years of British ambiguities, diffidence, equivocations, misgivings and grievances that started with the 1975 referendum. It is worth noting that in the run-up to that referendum the government of then prime minister Harold Wilson allowed Commission officials to directly inform British voters about the EU; I was one of the two-dozen who regularly spoke in Britain during the campaign. The Cameron government opposed a repeat.

We Europeans have had enough disputes about money, by far the most well-known being Margaret Thatcher’s arrogant demand of “Give me my money back”. When I oversaw the budget in the cabinet of Commission president Gaston Thorn, my proposal for a solution failed to foresee a sunset clause.

The result was that the UK, one of Europe’s richest countries per capita, pays relatively much less than others, including the Visegrád Four countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Britain refused to recognise the more recent realities of EU contributions because none of Thatcher’s successors would dare give up what she had won.

Giles Merritt’s suggestion to start with the “easy” part – defence and security cooperation – is wishful thinking. It is true that in this realm the UK has much to offer and the EU much to gain, but why didn’t Britain offer it during 40 years of membership? Besides, it has opposed European defence union objectives, a European defence fund and the creation of an autonomous EU military headquarters in Brussels. It has refused to participate in the European Defence Agency.

Even after Brexit, it has continued to cause trouble. The German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, recently had to warn the UK not to interfere with European plans to strengthen defence integration. And don’t forget that the Saint-Malo agreement between the UK and France was nothing but a ploy to prevent any attempt at substantial defence integration.

That the UK will have to pay more to the EU budget than the Brexiteers imagined is the Brexiteers’ fault

Giles Merritt’s proposal – that Brexit negotiations should consider defence before money – is simply unrealistic. The reason is threefold: first, for the British, money has always taken priority; second, defence is not the easiest subject; and third, money relates to the current Brexit process, whereas defence relates to what follows.

That the UK will have to pay more to the EU budget than the Brexiteers imagined is the Brexiteers’ fault. It is excessive to label as “perverse” the decision to start with the cost of withdrawal. What is truly perverse is the amount of lies spread by the Brexiteers. While nobody knows in which programmes the UK will wish to continue participating, it is essential to establish early on a general cost of withdrawal. Clear figures can be determined at the beginning of the negotiations. It will then be easy to adjust them in the light of the outcome of the negotiations.

Giles Merritt rightly says that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has helped us appreciate the urgency of European defence integration. This has to be discussed further by France and Germany. If Britain joins in, progress will slow. As soon as it is ready, the EU should adopt a dual-track process, involving the revision of the common security and defence policy (CSDP) governance model and a new partnership between CSDP and the UK (as a third party).

For the first time Giles Merritt appeared to take a British position, albeit presented in the interest of the EU as a whole. There might well be a “cash clash”, as you say, but discussing defence first is no alternative and would only allow Britain to make an EU agreement more difficult to reach.

And for the reasons given in the article, we have no time to lose.

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