A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson made a point about the EU negotiations and the futility of the idea of punishing Britain for the sake of it. ‘If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape’, he said, ‘rather in the manner of some World War II movie, then I don’t think that is the way forward, and actually it’s not in the interests of our friends and partners’. Cue howls of outrage. ‘Abhorrent and deeply unhelpful’, said Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator. But was Boris really so wide of the mark?
Yesterday Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, gave an interview to Bild on Sunday where he boasted that no other EU country would consider leaving the union once they see how harshly Britain will be treated in negotiations. ‘The remaining member states will fall in love with each other again and renew their vows with the European Union,’ he said. ‘They will all see from Britain’s example that leaving the EU is a bad idea.’
This is precisely the mentality that the Foreign Secretary held up to ridicule – the idea that the EU is held together by fear of what happens if you leave. And the European Commission goes about threatening vengeance and suggests that the aim of the negotiation will be a beating, pour encourager les autres. Just as Boris said. Juncker also presented the idea of Britain paying a divorce fee – between £20bn and £60bn - to even start negotiations. Indeed, the word "negotiation" seemed more generous than what he has in mind. He envisages ‘the choice to eat what’s on the table or not come to the table at all’.
Strange talk, and different to the more level-headed conciliatory language being deployed by individual member states. The EU as an institution (ie, the European Commission) is talking a meaner game than, say, Germany and France individually. Their manufacturers and farmers will want a free trade deal, but the EU will want Britain to suffer. So here, the interests and attitudes of the EU as an entity differ from those of its member states. The UK will be hoping that the latter prevails. And that Juncker's rantings are overridden by instructions from Berlin.
But it’s worth wondering if the Eurocrats are emboldened by the idea that – as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee pointed out last week – Theresa May’s government hasn’t done any work on what might happen if it has to walk out of talks. That she doesn’t have a Plan B. And what does the EU do to Prime Ministers who don’t have a Plan B? Ask David Cameron.
Liam Fox said last week that no deal would be not so much a Plan B ‘Plan Z’ – and fair enough, the Brexiteers are keen to strike a free trade deal and talk down chance of failure. But in any negotiation, to get what you want you need to persuade the other party that you’ll walk away if the terms are not good enough. Until Mrs May starts to do so, we can expect more such posturing from Brussels.