Naked Politics Blogger
One of the main things that stuck to me when Britain voted to leave the EU was that, even before the votes were counted, there was very little agreement on what kind of exit people wanted which should have been a red flag right away. Any politician will tell you that it’s one thing to be united on a particular issue and another to hammer out a solution. None of the voters or the parties could agree and even now, with the third round of negotiations over, we still have no idea.
It’s hard to get at the truth amidst all the shouting and arguing, the claims and counter-claims, the statements about cakes and eating them. One thing seems to be clear: Britain has no idea what it really wants and when it does, our demands are unthinkably steep. It’s difficult to disagree with chief negotiator for the EU, Michael Barnier when he called Britain’s approach to the talks unrealistic.
Much has been made of the Brexit divorce bill and how the fact that Britain is unwilling to pay it is making progress difficult. The actual number is up for debate with the British claiming they shouldn’t have to pay it and the EU bringing up sums from ten to a hundred billion pounds.
Interestingly, it appears that the government has decided to compromise over the bill with Boris Johnson at one point claiming that the EU could’ go whistle’ for their money and then, a few weeks later admitting on a radio talk show that Britain may have to pay their fair share.
The reason that it is a sticking point for the EU is partly due to the fact that Britain hasn’t paid for its contributions when it really should. To put it another way, we all have that one friend who borrows money and promises to pay us back but never does and sometimes can’t. It’s frustrating when you have to chase up borrowed money and when your friend doesn’t pay up, it’s downright dishonest and rude.
This might explain why Barnier felt that Britain was undermining the talk with a lack of trust. If Britain doesn’t pay up, then the EU is within its rights to tell the world that Britain can’t be trusted with money, a damning statement for Theresa May who is already struggling to contain disagreements in her own party about Britain’s economic potential.
It’s not just Britain’s current contributions though. Whether the EU needs Britain more than Britain needs the EU, the fact is that Britain was a major contributor to EU funds. Without them, many members are fully aware that the burden of membership fees will fall on them. The divorce bill could also be a stop-gap measure as the European Club reorganises its finances and charges a little extra for one of its biggest members dropping out.
One of Britain’s biggest problem is the insistent claim that they can simply cherry-pick what they want from the EU. They want all the benefits of membership (like access to the single market) without all the drawbacks (free movement) and it wants them now. It’s a bit like dropping out of your supermarket’s offer for special deals and then demanding the deals without signing up.
The EU has made it very clear that Britain can’t just pick and choose. As a member with special privileges, it could get away with it. Now, if it wants access to the single market, it either picks up the other options (which are all bad options from Britain’s view) or it doesn’t get access.
Again, pragmatism is the key thing to remember. The EU doesn’t want to punish us but it doesn’t like members leaving their club and getting a better deal on the outside. It’s the age-old problem: if you give concessions to one member, then everyone might try and leave to get better deals or concessions. It’s everyone or nobody at all.
The real irony is that Britain already had everything it was asking for. It had access to the single market without the need to pick up free movement. It had full control of its own borders while EU access made living and working abroad much easier. We could even elect members of the European Parliament who could veto anything it didn’t like. The system was never perfect, but looking at the options now and the way negotiations are going, some people are starting to realise that maybe Brexit wasn’t a good idea.
The negotiations show that Britain isn’t so much leaving the EU as flying out of the fantasy frying pan and into the fires of reality.