If you still believe Britain will get a sweet deal out of Brexit because “the European Union needs the United Kingdom more than vice versa”, ask yourself: Why don’t we hear European politicians pleading with Britain “not to punish the EU over Brexit”? Why is the pound plunging against the euro and not the other way around? Why do we not hear of companies escaping from the EU to “free-trading Britain” while there is almost a traffic jam in the other direction? Why do EU leaders look rather relaxed when Brexit comes up, even cracking the odd joke or two about sending the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, a copy of the Lisbon treaty so he can read up on reality?
The negotiating cards with the EU are “incredibly stacked our way”, the British Brexit minister, David Davis, told the House of Commons on Monday. The cards certainly are “incredibly stacked” — but not in the way Davis imagines.
To understand why, get a map of the EU and find Slovenia, a nation of two million people. No, that is Slovakia, with 5.4 million, almost three times bigger. Next look up Lithuania (population: 3.3 million), Latvia (two million), Estonia (1.3 million) and Luxembourg (500,000). Now repeat after me: All these EU members, as well as the other 21, hold veto power over whatever deal the UK (65 million) manages to negotiate with the EU (population: 508 million).
That is right, 1.2 million Cypriots can paralyse the British economy by blocking a deal and the same holds true for Malta (400,000). Did I mention the Walloon parliament in Namur (get that atlas out again) has veto power too? And then there is, of course, the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Brexiteers argue that the EU takes ages to conclude trade deals so Britain is better off striking them on its own. The former is certainly true. Consider the Walloons currently threatening to derail an EU trade deal with Canada. But how does EU institutional sluggishness square with the Brexiteers’ promise that the EU is even capable of concluding a swift Brexit deal with the UK, even if it wanted to do? It doesn’t.
And this is true even before we look at whether the EU would have an interest in making things easy for Britain. Remember how, before the EU referendum, former British prime minister David Cameron went to Brussels, threatening to support Leave unless he was given a range of “concessions”? Well, two can play that game, now that the tables have turned — except the EU has 27 nations. That is a lot of scope for blackmail a l’anglaise (in the English manner or style). To make things worse, while 44 per cent of British exports go to the EU single market, British politicians have gone out of their way to undermine, disparage and insult the very parliaments and institutions that now hold so much power over them.
Every country has an angry clown, so Europeans can overlook Nigel Farage, the United Kingdom Independence Party leader. But how about Johnson’s claim during the campaign that he saw no real difference between the EU and the work of the Nazis? This week, Tory MP Stephen Phillips spoke of “what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union”, while Davis actually warned the EU of breakup if it were to “punish” Britain for Brexit. That is no way to speak to your neighbours when they hold your economic future in their hands. Yet, this is still the tone from London, so it is no wonder that dispatches from Brussels in European newspapers report increasing exasperation and the last bit of goodwill drying up.
“The spoilt little prince” is how one EU diplomat described the emerging view of Britain to the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad — traditionally a very pro-British newspaper. For the many friends and admirers that Britain still has in Europe, these must be trying times. Some of them might have expected the UK to be engaged by now in a serious and wide-ranging debate on how to mend fences with its so-much-bigger brother across the Channel. Instead, Britain is losing itself in delusional grandstanding, talking about itself to itself. As for “punishing” the UK, the EU has far too much on its plate to indulge in punitive expeditions. It will defend its national and continental interests with as much vigour as Britain will. And, since the EU is more than seven times bigger, it will impose its will. Whatever the political darlings of the billionaire-owned British press tell themselves and their followers, Brexit will mean what the EU decides it means.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Joris Luyendijk is the author of Swimming with Sharks: My Journey Into the World of the Bankers. He is the former writer of the Guardian’s Banking Blog, which looked at finance from an anthropological perspective.