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11 Dec, 2020 18:16

If David Cameron had shown the same balls as Hungary and Poland in taking on EU, UK’s Brexit shambles would never have happened

If David Cameron had shown the same balls as Hungary and Poland in taking on EU, UK’s Brexit shambles would never have happened

Having forced Brussels to roll over on stringent rule-of-law conditions for EU funding, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Andrzej Duda have shown Britain how to win at the negotiating table. Pity is that it’s a lesson too late.

At last! After a long and bitter fight, where many harsh words were spoken and former allies became foes, Brussels was outwitted by a canny adversary who refused to submit to defeat and ultimately walked away with the spoils. 

Do not for a minute think this outcome has anything to do with Brexit.  

This is all about those two outliers from Eastern Europe – Hungary and Poland – forcing the European Commission into a humiliating climbdown over its attempt to peg the trillions of euros it will pay out as part of the Covid recovery fund and seven-year European Union budget to rule-of-law requirements in member states. 

What that really came down to was a threat to Budapest and Warsaw: prove to us you’re good Europeans and you can have the money. If we think you’re not upholding the European values we alone set, then all that funding will cease. The European Commission was largely talking about political influence on the judiciary, press restrictions, and the creation of ‘LGBT-free’ zones that have irritated Brussels for some time.

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Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and Polish President Andrzej Duda hit back hard by refusing to support the EU’s €1.8 trillion budget and rescue package. That meant those member states, such as Italy and Spain, that are desperately relying on emergency funding, would be left high and dry, and projects already under way and depend on Brussels dosh would stall and even collapse. 

In the end, the commission watered down the wording on its rule-of-law proposal, so it became harmless to the two recalcitrant members. And it then went even further, by kicking the can down the road on implementation, so Orbán and Duda can have their day in the European Court of Justice to contest the legality of the proposals. Until then, and that’s not expected until mid-2022, nothing will change. 

Except that, thanks to Orbán and Duda withdrawing their veto of the finance, Budapest will now pick up around €6.2bn in funding and Warsaw a very generous €23.2bn. That’s what you call a win-win.

The two eastern Europeans are wily streetfighters, Orbán in particular, and having drawn a line in the sand over Brussels’ restrictive proposals when they were first announced, never budged a millimetre. The two have taken the patronising Brussels attitude that somehow they should be grateful to belong to such a celebrated, liberal organisation such as the EU, and flung it back at them.

They have humiliated President Ursula von der Leyen, and, even though some EU officials are trying to sell this climbdown as a win for the commission, everybody knows it’s not. It shows the underlying weakness of the European Union, how a veto can be weaponized, and what stubborn determination can achieve.

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Now, let’s look at Brexit.

The UK has been taught a lesson. Way back in 2013, then-PM David Cameron announced he was going to Brussels to seek a “new settlement” for Britain in Europe. He promised to win a bagful of concessions from Brussels that would dispel any anti-EU sentiment in the UK, and convince us all that our future lay in a newly invigorated Europe.

After three years, on his return from the final stage of talks on this “new settlement” in February 2016, so underwhelming were the PM’s ‘achievements’ that, shortly after, he felt compelled to cave in to public pressure and announce the Brexit referendum, in which he made it perfectly clear he would choose to remain a member of the EU.

It was obvious he had not been the man for the job. Had the UK had someone such as Orbán or Duda pulling for them in those three years of jaw-jaw, then it is truly unlikely that Brexit would ever have happened.

That is the sort of stubborn-to-the-point-of-unreasonable negotiator needed in Brussels. Take Barack Obama’s withering assessment of Cameron in his recent autobiography, ‘The Promised Land’, in which Obama emphasises why he was such a poor fit for the role. The former POTUS observed that the old Etonian possessed “the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life”.

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We were fools to have expected that Cameron was equipped to understand the burning issues affecting us at the time, or that he would be the right man to send to Brussels to do something about them.

In the end, he failed at both. And now, even though we have been able to see the light of Britain’s exit train from the EU coming down that track with perfect clarity from some distance, its arrival will find us awkwardly fumbling for tickets in our pockets amid old tissues and loose change, while security staff seize our unattended luggage, which we had forgotten all about, and take it away for disposal.

The entire Brexit saga has been a shambles that we entrusted to elected leaders who never put their heart into it. By the time Boris Johnson managed to take control of the agenda, it was all too late anyway. Brussels had way too much time to put its ducks in a row and second-guess our every move. So here we are. No deal. Ho-hum.

Viktor Orbán and Andrzej Duda must be laughing up their sleeves at this very fine negotiation mess that is entirely of our own making. And who can blame them?

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