Brexit talks to begin with confrontation, but UK will call EU’s bluff – UKIP founder

A wave of terrorist attacks, the Conservative’s failure in snap elections, and a growing divide in society – much has changed since Britain voted to leave the European Union a year ago. With the UK’s government in disarray, Prime Minister May’s hardline EU exit strategy is being increasingly called into question. As Brexit talks kick off, the EU is demanding that Britain start off by paying what it says the UK owes to the bloc. So how much are both sides willing to budge during the negotiations? Will the UK hardliners buckle under pressure from Brussels? We ask the founder of the UK Independence Party, Alan Sked.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alan Sked, professor emeritus of international history at the London School of Economics, founder of the UK Independence Party and New Deal Party, Eurosceptic, welcome back to my show, it’s great to have you with us, Alan.

Alan Sked: Hello, thank you.

SS: As the Brexit negotiations get underway between the UK and the EU, European politicians are saying that a door back into the union is open - but that it will be “a brand new door”, that the UK will still lose money even if it wants back in. Why is Brussels taking this position? Does it also want the UK to leave? Or is it just making an example of the UK?

AS: I think it’s just playing games. I mean, there’s no prospect of the UK returning to the EU, especially if the conditions are that we would give up our rebate and we will also have to give up our appetites. I’m gladly saying that that reinforces the impression I have that there’s no way we can go back now.

SS: Who holds the cards in the negotiations right now?

AS: Both sides have different cards that they hold. For the British side the main one is money. When we leave we’ll stop paying about 10 bn a year into the EU budget. That’s a huge hole in their budget, and they’re desperate to somehow reclaim that money, and so these funny demands of 100 bn before we start negotiations. They also need free trade with the British internal market, they sell huge amounts of goods from German cars to French wine, to Italian and other goods to the British, and they don’t want to lose that market or will be discriminated against that market. Finally, they’re very dependent on British help in defence and security affairs. So, we have all these cards to play. Their card is that they know we want a free trade deal to have to free access to the internal market in Europe. So, these are the issues on which the negotiations will turn.

SS: The fate of Britons living in Europe and the Europeans living in the UK is one of the focal points in these talks. Britons who live in the EU expect to have rights they’re used to after UK-European divorce, including the rights to work and receive benefits in the country of residence. Do you think London is ready to grant the same rights to the Europeans living in the UK?

AS: Yes. I  think so. I think the British have always been ready to give a generous settlement to the Europeans living inside the UK. What stopped them so far is Europeans being ready to grant some settlement to the Brits living in Europe, either in Spain or Ireland or France. That should be settled quite quickly. The new difficulty that’s arisen is that the EU is now saying that the rights of EU citizens living in Britain after Brexit should be protected and adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. Now, if Britain is coming out and becoming a totally independent country, that obviously can’t be allowed from my point of view.

SS: Will the people be forced to be uprooted should London and Brussels fail to find common ground on this? For instance, will the British retirees be forced to come back home from sunny Spain to foggy Britain?

AS: I have no idea. I don’t think that’s going to happen, I think the Spanish have already said that they’re happy to keep the British pensioners in Spain as long as we give rights to Spanish people working in the UK. Again, there’s a slight possibility they may complicate all this because of Gibraltar, but if they’re sensible, that won’t happen.

SS: So, at this point Brussels is sending signals it may accept a ‘soft’ Brexit which implies retaining closer UK-EU ties, and Britain remaining in the European Customs Union. At the same time, EU negotiators are warning that Britain has to pay what they call a ‘hefty bill’ if they want this kind of scenario. Do you feel Britain is in effect being blackmailed during these talks? 

AS: I don’t think the British will go for that. The British government just now is quite clear that it wants to come out of the Customs Union and the single markets. I would’ve thought that any deal that would require us still to pay billions into Brussels, to accept the superiority of the ECJ, to accept free movement or even a deal whereby we can have semi- sort of entrance to the single markets, but we still had to accept the regulations made by Brussels without actually taking part in the discussions beforehand - that would be unacceptable, because that would mean that Brussels could create regulations for the city of London which could, in fact, destroy it… So, I don’t think we’ll actually fall for that.

SS: Speaking about the bill, Bloomberg is saying Brexit could cost the UK 60 billion to 80 billion euros, which is more than the British defense budget. Can the UK afford to foot this bill?

AS: If Bloomberg is saying that’s the bill that’s going to be presented at the start of the negotiations - then negotiations will stop immediately, because the British have no intention of paying any such bill, which is just… I don’t know, a try-on by the Europeans, because legally they know and we know we’re not obliged to pay them anything.

SS:So wait, you’re saying Britain is not going to pay, it has no intention to pay - so what’s going to happen then?

AS: I think that’s going to be a confrontation at the very start, and if the EU puts forward a bill of up to a 100 billion euros and says “Pay that or else the negotiations stop” - well, the negotiations will then stop. But we’ll call their bluff, and then, I think, what will happen is that we’ll get an agreement that… Look, we can talk about some of kind of figure, but it will be nowhere near 80 or 100 billion, but we’re prepared to talk about some kind of figure at the end - once we’ve tied up all of things as a whole, then we’ll look at the overall figure and we might concede to you.

SS:What  kind of figure could that be? Do you have an idea?

AS: Rumor just now says that the highest possible figure the government would contemplate is something like 20-25 billion, but that’s the highest. I don’t think Parliament will be very happy with that figure. I think it will be quite low.

SS:Yeah, that makes a difference from 80-100 billion.

AS: That’s just the out of the ballpark, there’s no way the Britons are going to pay 80 to 100 billion.

SS: Theresa May said “no deal is better than a bad deal”. But taken the level of commercial cooperation between Britain and Europe can London afford to just walk away - could this logic end up destroying the British economy?

AS: No, because you must remember that most countries in the world have no free trade agreement with the EU. All countries in the world have access  to the single market, it’s just the matter of on what terms. The average industrial tariff on industrial goods, if we just walked away, will be merely 4%. The pound has declined by about 12% to 16% so, exporters are not going to be very worried by 4% tariff when they’ve already got 12% advantage because of the decline of the pound. There’s a few things, like agriculture and… I can’t remember what the other things were, you know, where the tariffs are slightly higher, but we could just make special arrangements for our farmers. But a 4% general tariff according to WTO rules - it’s really not all that significant.

SS: We’ve been talking about what’s going to happen to Britain if it doesn’t pay, but a disorderly exit would be damaging for all of the EU as well, so despite the tough posturing, are the interests of both the EU and Britain basically the same in these talks?

AS: I would’ve thought so. I mean, the EU sells far more to us than we sell to the EU, so its manufactures or its exporters generally have a greater incentive to have a smooth exit than even the British have. But, obviously, on both sides, there’s no advantage for either side to have a rough-and-tumble about tariffs and various other things, and a smooth transition is what both sides need.

SS: Brexit may jeopardize an open border between the two Irelands, and that isn’t going to sit well with North Irish who are used to having access to their kin in the south. Both London and Brussels say they don’t want to have a hard border back. But wouldn’t having it open leave a huge backdoor into the UK, once it leaves the EU and regains control over its borders, which was one of the main reasons for Brexit?

AS: I think both sides know that Northern Irish border is a special case, they’re working very hard to come up with a solution and a number of possible solutions have been put forward. I think because - again - it’s much in the interest of the Republic of Ireland, as well as in interest of Northern Ireland to have an open border and not to have a hard border - I’m sure that problem will be resolved.

SS: UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis is insisting that Theresa May is “good” in dealing with European leaders on “contentious issues”. Would you agree with his evaluation?

AS: The evidence is that when she was Home Secretary and took part in various EU negotiations regarding various laws and home affairs and justice - that she did exceptionally well in protecting the British point of view and getting opt-outs when we wanted them. So, everyone more or less agrees her record in negotiating as Home Secretary with EU was extremely good.

SS: UKIP - the party you founded - pulled off a stunning upset with Brexit, but had a disastrous election and is seems to be falling apart. You said that UKIP has achieved its goal and should simply disappear now. Is there absolutely no room for a UKIP comeback? For example, if there’s to be a bad Brexit deal, could UKIP play on that to woo voters back?

AS: Theoretically there’s a case for UKIP staying around, just in case Brexit doesn’t work. I’m not sure I’m convinced by it. I think that if there are difficulties with Brexit, the defence of Brexit will be taken up in the House of Commons, largely by Conservative members of Parliament who’ve now become very-very committed Brexiteers. Nigel Farage, while he was  leader of the UKIP is talking about coming back and having a kind of street movement that would be akin to Labor party Momentum movement, but that would, I fear, just lead to the possibility of a far-left and far-right street clashes and won’t do parliamentary democracy any good at all. I think we want support in House of Commons and support from traditional multiparty groups using traditional political messages outside the House of Commons to stiffen the government's resolve if it’s needed.

SS: By setting up a snap general election, Theresa May was hoping to consolidate support for her party and therefore for Brexit. This resulted in the Conservatives losing its majority. How rash was the snap election decision considering the initial polls?

AS: I don’t think it was rushed at all. At the time seemed a perfectly sensible thing to do, and their explanation for the need of General elections seemed to me to be convincing. What went wrong was A) the Tory party manifesto, which horrified most people in the country, and B) the way she conducted herself during the campaign. She was obviously reluctant to meet the population as a whole, she avoided large meetings, she avoided debates with other party leaders, as has become a custom during general elections in this country. She seemed to be unable to give fluent answers in discussions. Her  answers were quite short and repetitive, and, again, I don’t know, she didn’t seem to come over as someone who had any sense of humor or much humanity. She was far too robotic, and I think the country having seen her for 3-4-5 weeks, wherever it was, just turned away from her. But she got 5% more votes than the Tory party got in the last election. The Tory vote went up by 5%.

SS: YouGov's latest poll suggests that Theresa May is now as unpopular as Jeremy Corbyn was last November. Meanwhile, the Labour leader has seen a remarkable turnaround in approval ratings. How do you explain this shift in public opinion? Last year he was a socialist, linked to the IRA and wanted the Queen gone according to the media...

AS: His tactic in the general election campaign was not so very much about Brexit at all, which the election was called about. He merely said that he was a nice… He gave an appearance of being a nice, kind, grandfatherly figure who’s like Santa Claus, who’s going to give presents to everybody who wanted them. He told students that they didn’t need to pay for their education, he told everybody else that they would get large pay increase or they will get large social welfare benefits. He promised to sprinkle money around, give presents, he had a beard, he looked benign - it was really like… you know, his manifesto was really like a wish-list to Santa, and he played the Santa Claus card and therefore became popular - everybody likes Santa Clause.

SS: George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that Theresa May is a ‘dead woman walking’ - do you also think that her own party may revolt against her?

AS: It’s absolutely clear she won’t be allowed to lead the Tories into the next General election. She is a dead woman walking in a sense, of which she knows, that she’s there for as long as Conservative party wants her to be there, just now they don’t want another general election, they think a leadership crisis won’t do the party any good. I would’ve thought that , really, until Parliament recesses for the summer, she’s very safe. After that, Tory MPs will go to the constituencies, decide if the party really wants to keep her on, and her fate will be sealed when Tory MPs come back and they know what the new members want and they’ve decided among themselves, if having her as front is still working or not.

SS: Moody’s top rating agency is saying that the lack of a majority for any party in the election is hampering Brexit negotiations. What’s your take on this? Should we expect another election?

AS: Oh, we won’t have another election, that’s the last thing the Conservatives want, and they’re not going to do anything to have another election. Lacking majorities… you know 20 out of the 27 candidates...Sorry, Prime Ministers of our European partners lack an overall majority, they’re part of coalition governments. When the election was held in Holland a few months ago, the PM won with a mere 22% of the vote, and he still tried to put a coalition government together. This is probably hypocritical for the Europeans to say “May doesn’t have an absolute majority” - in most cases, they don’t either.

SS: Does the fact that Westminster’s in disarray mean Brussels will be tough and pushy, and Theresa May’s promise of a good deal will be that much harder to fulfill?

AS: It will be harder because it will be more difficult for her to go back to Commons in some kind of emergency and ask for the backing of Parliament. On the other hand, you know, the Labor party during the election campaign supported exactly the same strategies the government had. The Labor Party manifesto said that Britain should come out of both the single market and the European Customs Union. So, the two parties between them, on the same manifesto pledges for Brexit, got 89% of the vote. So, there’s a very strong case for saying that the general election produced an overwhelming backing for a “hard” Brexit.

SS: Post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Le Pen, German and French leaders are now saying that reform is needed, that changing EU treaties is possible - something that was unthinkable before Brexit, Le Pen, etc. But passing those was a huge pain, and getting all the member states to agree will probably be just as difficult, are they just bluffing to appease Eurosceptic voters?

AS: A lot of the bluffing is to appease the pro-European voters. Macron in France has produced a program for fiscal unity, a single European budget, a single European taxation system, a single European finance minister - they’re trying to drum up a kind of counter-strategy to what they see as European populism, but the fact is that the most European citizens don’t want more integration. Instead of wanting more Europe they want less Europe, and so the elites are in danger of merely producing a program which the population in Europe will object to.

SS: In an interview a while back you told me that a UK exit will cause other exits from the EU, that France may leave, etc. But so far, nobody’s leaving, instead, there’s talk of reform - has Brexit scared European voters into liking the EU instead of inspiring them to leave it?

AS: To a certain extent. The media propaganda in Europe since Brexit has been that Britain has become a dreadful place and suffered terribly economically - which isn’t true, because the economy has done fine since we announced Brexit. However, there’s been a kind of re-band of the European economy, to a certain extent - but how temporary or permanent this is, is still to be seen. The fact remains that the Greek tragedy is still playing out, the Greek bailouts are still negotiated, the fact is that the Italian banks are very-very fragile and could collapse given any kind of political uncertainty in Italy. There’s always a possibility of a crisis somewhere else, migration crisis could resurrect itself again. I don’t think the EU is out of the woods. I mean, the chances that the Eurozone might collapse, that something else might go wrong are very-very high. So… although for the moment it looks as if the EU is stabilized, two or three years down a road, it might be a very different question.

SS: I remember you saying in the same talk of ours that weird people who are attracted to the Eurosceptic cause, who end up joining it and leading it - will actually hurt it. But is it possible to be a Eurosceptic and not be a ‘weird person’, as you put it, and still have popular appeal?

AS: I can’t remember that quote. A “weird person”?

SS: You know, people out of ordinary, some refer to them as “freaks”...

AS: I think I probably meant that there were extremists, especially Islamophobic extremists…

SS: That’s another word to describe that.

AS: Like Wilders in Holland and certain people in Hungary and certain people in Sweden and certain parts of the Front National in France - so, yes, but the thing about Euroscepticism is that it’s not a united pan-European movement. Its opponents, the European federalists try to make this up, but it’s not the case. I mean, in Britain Euroscepticism is led by the Conservative party which is the oldest and most traditional party in Western Europe, and everything’s done through Parliamentary messages, and the weirdos that took over UKIP since Brexit have been totally abandoned by the electorate. So, Britain is very-very different from some of these other countries, and then in Holland and France we saw the electorate reject the weirder types of Eurosceptics.

SS: Alright, Alan, thanks for this wonderful interview. We’ve been talking to Alan Sked, founder of the UK Independence Party, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, talking about Britain’s divorce from the EU in light of the latest snap election in the country. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.