EU starts playing hardball over Brexit, takes UK to task over 'people, money & Ireland'

John Lee
John Lee is the political editor and columnist at the Mail on Sunday (Ireland edition). He has covered Irish, British, US, European and Australian politics for over 20 years for a number of titles, including the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph (Australia).
EU starts playing hardball over Brexit, takes UK to task over 'people, money & Ireland'
Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May was treated with haughty arrogance as EU bureaucrats lectured her on the failings of her government and nation.

Meanwhile, damaging leaks against the British continued into the weekend. Then, after an EU Summit in Brussels, the British were handed the guidelines for the EU’s negotiating stance on the Brexit talks. They were insulting, proscriptive and designed to damage the Conservative Party’s prospects in the impending British General Election.

In other words, the EU has let Britain know that if they leave the club they will be made to suffer. A lot. But that, Ms. May, as many of smaller European Union nations could have warned you, is how the EU rolls.

During the financial crisis, Greece, Ireland and Portugal were handed crucifying terms for bailouts - bailouts that in some instances they didn’t want. And then they were sneered at as the painful process moved forward. The British stood benignly by, secure in their power and wealth. In Brussels last weekend I heard the same smooth bureaucrats sneering at Britain.

And then came the moment when European Commissioner Jean Claude Juncker, attending a press conference where he unveiled the working document for the negotiations, bizarrely mocked the food on offer at number 10 Downing Street.

Twenty-seven EU leaders met in Brussels to give the EU’s official statement of its terms for the negotiation of British departure from the Union. At the same time, May was campaigning at home for a General Election to be held on June 8.

The European Council (Article 50) guidelines for Brexit negotiations were published on the weekend after the briefest summit in my memory. I’ve been to many of these Summits. They are invariably filled with bad coffee and processed food as we wait around the sterile Berlaymont EU Parliament Building until the early hours. Behind closed doors EU leaders argue over minutiae endlessly. On Saturday, however, the meeting took just four minutes to agree the text. The message was unity, unity of action by 27 nations against Britain.

The document spoke, predictably, of the disruption the British have caused by deciding to leave. Dripping with an odd blend of arrogance and self-pity, it says that the United Kingdom's decision to leave the Union creates “significant uncertainties” that have the potential to “cause disruption”.

There was also pity expressed for the British, for their democratic decision will cause disruption “in particular in the United Kingdom”.

European Council President Donald Tusk summarized the EU negotiation document by saying the British Government must settle the issues of “people, money and Ireland” before negotiating trade.

This was a weekend of new departures for the EU: along with quick meetings and easy to understand documents, we had Tusk throwing out usefully succinct sentences. For it wonderfully summarizes the British predicament. They must decide people, money and Ireland before they get to trade. And anyone with a passing understanding of British history knows that it is only trade that really matters to the British. The largest Empire the world has seen was founded, by a small maritime nation, to conduct trade. The possession of those lands it sought to trade with - India, America and Hong Kong - followed almost as an afterthought. That order has now been flipped on the British.

Tusk was saying that the UK must ensure the welfare of the more than 3 million EU citizens within its borders. That concern had not been flagged before the weekend. That could potentially see these people with access to the European Court of Justice while British citizens proper don’t. Britain must also honor its financial obligations to the union, including a “divorce bill” of up to €60 billion. And then comes Ireland. Those overseas possessions, since World War I, an albatross around the necks of the British, are going to cause untold grief. The EU has cunningly dropped in explosive references to Ireland and the tiny rock of Gibraltar. Two of the smallest pawns in the Union are being brought to play.

Little old Ireland has the only land border with the UK in the EU. Ireland was partitioned after winning independence from Britain in 1921; six northern counties remain within the UK. The document simply says that the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to decades of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998 must be adhered to. And ‘imaginative’ solutions must be introduced to avoid a ‘hard’ border, which would restrict the movement of people and goods.

Yet, explosively, it was announced afterwards that minutes of negotiations which will be published in June will refer to something far more problematic. The EU mandarins announced that if, in the future, the people of Ireland vote for a United Ireland all the people will avail of the rights of EU citizens.

Irish officials in Brussels told me they were "ecstatic" with the diplomatic coup that has seen them secure a mention of a United Ireland. British diplomats, on the other hand, told me they are furious. This is interfering with the British union.

The document also says that Spain will have a full veto over the future of Gibraltar. The small island, really a large rock, off the south coast of Spain has been occupied by Britain since 1713. It’s status is disputed by Spain. British governments have had no great love for these territories; they cost them billions and are really an anachronism. But by giving Ireland and Gibraltar such prominence, the EU has thrown a couple of grenades into the debate.

The majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU in last June’s Brexit vote. This offer by the EU will play on their minds in the General Election. If pro Remain parties gain a large majority in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, the viability of the ‘United Kingdom’ is further undermined.

That Gibraltar has ended up in the official EU communiqué is a cunning move too. It hits psychologically at the British, at their power and their ability to protect their citizens in the last bastions of Empire. The Tory heartland will not be happy.

Bringing up these issues demonstrates that Juncker, Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are willing to play hardball, and this damages May going into the election. I have been one of those who does not predict a good election for May. I think the Labour heartlands in the north, allied with anti-Brexit sentiment in London, might deal her a blow she is not expecting. The polls are turning too in Labour’s favor.

If you like Machiavelli, you will have admired the performance of the EU establishment over this last week. And as always the real action in the diplomatic negotiations happened over dinner. Last Wednesday in Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country retreat, May met with Jean Claude Juncker and other EU leaders.

Journalists were briefed that Juncker dramatically pulled out a copy of the 2,000-page EU-Canada trade deal. He reminded her that the recently agreed deal had taken almost a decade to negotiate.

Juncker reportedly told Angela Merkel that Theresa May is “deluded”.

A British Government source told me: “The message was clear – ‘you are not getting out of this dysfunctional relationship quickly or easily’. This could ruin you”.

Numerous briefings in Brussels were along the same lines. The British PM was “unrealistic” and “living in cloud cuckoo land”.

The Irish, Greeks and Portuguese have seen this in the past. I wrote a book chronicling the Irish financial crash. The memories Irish leaders have of the treatment they received from President of the European Central Bank will never leave them. Another Jean Claude, Jean Claude Trichet used similar tactics to the current Jean Claude. Slap down your opponent, make it clear that the opponent is just not as smart as all those wonderfully sophisticated French and German bureaucrats.

And that’s what is happening again. The rights of Ireland and Gibraltar are being heralded, but nobody really cares about them. This is about protecting the rights of Germany and France to do as well as possible out of the EU. And to enshrine the salaries and cushy conditions of the tens of thousands of Brussels-based bureaucrats. The very interests the British have most vocally criticized.

May is getting a taste of EU steel. But she is weak, she only wants to get out. But to do that she has to deal with the EU and play by its rules. Or, as Juncker so unsubtly hinted, this break up could take many years.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.