You Brexit, You Buy It

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium

However much both sides want to behave like grown-ups, the arguments over withdrawal soon turn into squabbles.

November-December 2017

The rules of the game are a mystery. Nobody really knows how a country extricates itself from the European Union. The EU wasn’t set up to deal with members leaving; the whole idea of the European project, as defined under the Treaty of Rome, is to achieve “ever closer union.” Article 50, the mechanism for a member state to withdraw, was never intended to be used. Giuliano Amato, the former prime minister of Italy and a venerable Eurocrat, has claimed he only added the clause to the European Constitution as a sop to recalcitrant British politicians, because Brits have never been comfortable with the idea of pooling sovereignty with the continent. “My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there, but never used,” he said. “It is like having a fire extinguisher that should never have to be used. Instead, the fire happened.”

The Brexiteers regard Article 50 more as an escape hatch on the great sinking ship that is the European Union. Neither side has much of an idea how the damn thing operates. At first, both Brexiteers and Europhiles hyped Article 50 as a “point of no return.” In the aftermath of the EU referendum on June 23, 2016, triumphant Euroskeptics urged the government to seize the moment, and invoke the clause before the Brussels bureaucrats figured out how to inveigle Britain back into the EU fold. Pro-Europeans—now called Remainers—said that it would be madness to trigger Article 50 without any clear sense of Britain’s future, “the equivalent of jumping off a cliff with an untested parachute,” as one start-up businessman put it. Then Article 50 happened, and the Brexiteers cheered. The Sun projected a vast farewell message—“DOVER & OUT”—on the famous white cliffs of Dover, which face the English Channel. Lots of Remainers changed tune, however. Never mind Article 50, they said, Brexit can still be stopped. Lord Kerr, who claims to have written Article 50, insisted the clause was not intended to be irrevocable. He said Britain could change its mind at any time during the two-year negotiating period.

Amid the confusion, it can be hard to tell who is more delusional: the Brexiteers who think an independent Britain will almost instantly be elevated to great global status again, or the Remainers and the EU officials who can’t accept that Brexit is happening.

WHAT’S INCREASINGLY clear is that there is little room for dialogue—let alone compromise—between Leavers and Remainers, or Theresa May’s government and the EU. The opening exchanges of the Brexit talks showed that while both sides are eager to sound polite, they cannot agree on the process for withdrawal, let alone the terms.

Theresa May has called for “a phased process of implementation,” meaning Britain and the EU would agree a transitional arrangement on trade, customs and immigration while a more permanent free-trade agreement (FTA) is struck. The EU, by contrast, is pushing first for the cost of a “financial settlement”—a.k.a. the Brexit Bill—to be agreed before negotiations can move forward. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s endearingly eccentric president, has said Britain’s exit payment must be sufficiently “salty,” to put off other countries that might be tempted to leave the EU ship. The saline figure being touted by the other twenty-seven EU members is 60 billion euros. That may not sound obscene, considering the larger sums involved, but it is more than enough to generate strong disagreements about who owns what share of the continental silver. Article 50 contains no mention of a severance fee, the Brexiteers point out, and Britain has poured enormous amounts of money into the European project over the years. A paper by the consultants Miles Saltiel and Bob Lyddon, of the policy institute Global Britain, argued that Britain has a right to tens of billions in capital reserves from the European Investment Bank. If anything, they owe us, say the Leavers.

That is the trouble with Britain versus the EU: however much both sides want to behave like grown-ups, the arguments over withdrawal soon turn into squabbles. The British media—pro- and anti-EU—is of course quick to exacerbate any discord. Who wants to read or write about customs practices when one can raise the possibility of war?

Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk initiating Article 50 stressed that Britain’s “decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans” and that “we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.” But Brussels and the Remain press quickly interpreted her repeated emphasis on the importance of cooperation to combat terrorism as aggression. Senior Brussels figures told the Guardian that May had made a “blatant threat” and was treating European lives as “a bargaining chip.” It was as if the prime minister had threatened to release British terrorists and bus them into European capitals.

The EU’s response to Theresa May’s opening Brexit salvo caused an even sillier row over Gibraltar, a small peninsula bordering Spain that has been a British sovereign territory since 1713. Gibraltar is a grotty place: Byron called it “the dirtiest most detestable spot in existence.” Today, it is a haven for tax dodgers and gambling companies, and not much else. Nevertheless, Spain has always resented Britain’s control of “the Rock”—and the EU latched onto that grievance in its so-called “draft guidelines,” the union’s first published response to Brexit. “No agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom,” declared Brussels. Or, as a EU official told the press, “The union will stick up for its members and that means Spain now.”