Having one's cake, eating it - demanding more, and eating that, has long been a feature of the EU Brexit negotiating team. A recent example of their hypocrisy is to be found in the wave of faux outrage over Boris Johnson's threat that if he became PM, he would refuse to pay the £39 billion that Brussels is demanding from us. In terms of the race for leadership of the Conservative & Unionist Party, Johnson has long realised that such a threat has an extraordinary resonance with views of the majority of grassroots Conservatives; it is noticeable that Jeremy Hunt has only recently woken up to the importance of such promises, and has sought to jump on the bandwagon – despite having previously pronounced 31st October as a 'artificial deadline' and suggesting that he would extend it if necessary (Cowburn, 2019; Clark, 2019).
Johnson said he found it 'extraordinary' that the Government appeared willing to hand over this huge sum before any deal was concluded – especially as the next stage that deals with the two years' of 'negotiations' over international trade. This naturally caused a row in Brussels, with people such as Guy Verhofstadt branding Johnson's comments as "…absolutely unacceptable…" He went on to say that:
"Boris Johnson threatens not to pay the Brexit bill. This would not only hurt the UK's credibility as an international partner, but it is absolutely unacceptable and contradicts what almost every lawyer in the UK thinks about it" (Hawker, 2019).
I am unsure how exactly such an action would 'hurt' the credibility of the UK as an international partner – of course he does not elaborate further – merely calls it 'absolutely unacceptable.' In this, he and I are in complete agreement – I too find the Brexit bill (also known as the 'divorce bill' or 'reparations payment') 'absolutely unacceptable': what do we get for this outrageous sum? I tend to view the 'Brexit bill' as EU-inspired blackmail: earlier in the 'negotiations' process we were threatened by Michel Barnier that if we did not "…settle our accounts…" then the EU negotiating team would not even discuss the possibilities of a free trade deal (Crisp and Maidment, 2017:6). In what way, might one ask, is such a threat materially different to that made by Boris Johnson? Since then, the sum of £39 billion appears to have been agreed upon, yet we are no closer to understanding how this figure was arrived at, nor finalising arrangement for our escape from Brussels.
A bill is generally an account for goods and/or services provided to a customer by a service provider or retailer. The items purchased (at for example a supermarket) are listed, and their value totalled. The customer is then expected to pay the amount asked for. However, finding information relating to £39 billion (ie. an itemised bill) is not easy, one reason being that UK and the EU have very different points of view as to what constitutes Brexit. In the UK, the general consensus is that we will continue paying our 'club membership' fees up until the time we leave. Once we have left the club, we owe nothing more. By contrast, the EU tends to regard Brexit as a divorce: in that case, it is argued that we have financial obligations that may last into the future – akin to paying child maintenance in a matrimonial divorce. The difference, however, is that in a divorce the assets are divided amongst the divorcing parties, and so far, I have been unable to ascertain what exactly the UK will receive as part of the settlement. I spoke briefly to Andrew Bridgen MP on this matter at the Bruges Group meeting last November. He seemed to think that we will get nothing, and I have to admit that so far it looks as if he is correct.
The EU claims that Brexit is a divorce; when dividing up the assets, however, they prefer to think of our departure as a termination of club membership, meaning that there are no assets to which we have a claim. As in a divorce, we are, surely, entitled to our share of the thousands of bottles of vintage wine stored in the Commission buildings in Brussels; our share of the expensive paintings that adorn the walls. What about the EEAS extravagant dinner services? The thousands of computers, telephones, office furniture, stationery, Ministerial cars etc. etc. The list of shared assets is endless, and if we are to pay a 'divorce' bill, then we should have our share of the joint assets. Yet the EU continues to regard Brexit as a divorce when it comes to our future long-term commitments, but as termination of membership when it comes to dividing up shared assets! Surely a classic example of continued cake consumption! Furthermore, I can find no support for the EU position: the only stipulation for a country leaving is that it has a two-year period of 'negotiation' over its withdrawal. Once again Brussels appears to be making up the rules as it goes along… "Another slice of cake? Don't mind if I do."
Returning to the venomous Verhofstadt, I have been following the machinations of Brexit closely over the last three years, but must have missed the research study in which he apparently surveyed the population of UK lawyers to canvass their opinion on withholding the £39 billion. I would like to see this study (and especially the methodology on which it was based), that led him to claim that 'almost every lawyer in the UK' feels that the £39 billion should be paid regardless. Perhaps either he or his team would like to enlighten us? I will not be holding my breath.
But leaving aside such technicalities as accuracy for a moment, a very basic question that must be asked is 'do we owe the EU anything, and if so how much?' A source described as being close to the French President Emmanuel Macron, was quoted as having said that: "Not honouring your payment obligations is a failure of international commitments equivalent to a sovereign debt default, whose consequences are well known" (Hawker, 2019). At risk of sounding pedantic, such broad threats can be dismissed out of hand as being based on a falsehood: to begin with, the £39 billion is not a 'payment obligation' as such payment has never been agreed, therefore it cannot be 'honoured.' Secondly, the issue cannot be compared with a 'sovereign debt default' as nothing has been borrowed. Sovereign debts only exist when one country borrows from another, and/or from independent domestic or foreign lenders. Money that has been borrowed must be repaid, otherwise the reputation of the borrower will suffer, and they will find it difficult (if not impossible) to secure more loans in the future. Thus on both counts the French are wrong – but when has that ever stopped them from political posturing before?
The real key to the rights and wrongs of payment/non-payment, is to be found in The Joint Report agreed on 8th December 2017, and published as an EU document. If I recall correctly, at the time the EU were desperate that we did not gain some advantage in any area of the negotiations, and to pre-empt this happening, it was agreed by all concerned that the document should have a caveat ensuring that, regardless of the order in which the thousands of issues were agreed, nothing would be finalised until everything had been agreed. The relevant section of the joint report is as follows:
"This report is put forward with a view to the meeting of the European Council (Article 50) of 14-15 December 2017. Under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed…" [author's italics and bold]. (TF50, 2017)
This report went to the Commission for their meeting of 14-15 December, 2017, and was accepted. As it is obvious that not everything has yet been agreed, we must assume that nothing has been agreed. If nothing has been agreed, I return to my central point that we are under no obligation to give the EU anything. I have two hopes for the immediate future: (1) Boris Johnson becomes the next PM, and (2), in this capacity he takes us out of the EU by 31st October, with or without agreeing something with Brussels, and preferably with our £39 billion if nothing can be agreed. The money could then be put to good use, helping our exporters, strengthening our Armed Forces, and investing in the NHS and social services.
ReferencesClark, Ross (2019) "The flaw in Jeremy Hunt's Brexit plan." The Spectator (26th June);
Cowburn, Ashley (2019) "Jeremy Hunt says he will not commit to October Brexit deadline 'at any cost'." Independent (16th June); https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-hunt-brexit-deadline-october-31-tory-leadership-contest-a8960801.html
Crisp, James and Maidment, Jack (2017) "Pay up if you want free trade deal, says Barnier." The Daily Telegraph (22nd September), p. 6
Hawker, Luke (2019) "Brexit LIVE: EU furious at Johnson's Brexit threat as Verhofstadt rages 'unacceptable.'" Express (10th June);https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1138467/Brexit-latest-news-eu-european-union-tory-leadership-boris-johnson-Verhofstadt
Swift, J.S. (2018) "Go Now: Leave the EU Immediately and Without a Deal." The Bruges Group (Blog: 20th June); https://www.brugesgroup.com/blog/go-now-call-brussels-bluff-leave-the-eu-immediately-and-without-a-deal
TF 50 (2017) "Joint Report from the negotiators of the European Union and the United Kingdom Government on progress during phase 1 of negotiations under Article 50 TEU on the united kingdom's orderly withdrawal from the European Union." TF 50 (2017) 19-Commission to EU 27.Published 8 December 2017; https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/ beta-political/files/joint_report.pdf