At their Vienna summit this month EU leaders, as expected, refused to give M. Barnier permission to move on to the crucial issue of trade, but they did agree to discuss it amongst themselves. Chancellor Merkel said enough progress had been made to encourage her to think it will be possible to “take the work forward and then reach the start of the second phase in December”. Similar remarks were made by others.
Generally the 27 national leaders (the EU Council plus its president Donald Tusk, minus Theresa May) have been pretty staunch in adhering to their blocking mandate until now, at least in public. Their frowns and patronising lectures have lessened but its pretty clear they’re still holding out for a massive increase in divorce payments. Leading up to the summit meeting quite a few senior ministers in the national governments have been far more positive about wanting a good deal for us all. Is this a tactic or a sign of fragmenting opinion amongst our ‘friends’? Here are some examples:
Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (interview with the MTI news agency.) “It is vital for the European Union, and accordingly also for Hungary, that a free trade agreement is concluded between the United Kingdom and the European Union. … In view of the fact that the British economy provides one-seventh of the EU’s economic performance, and also taking into account that today’s global economic and global trade environment is built on speed, freedom from obstacles and comprehensive standardisation, failure to conclude a free trade agreement would have tragic consequences for the European economy.”
Earlier in the year he told BBC Newsnight: “If there’s no deal, if there’s no comprehensive economic, trade and investment agreement, then we will be in big trouble in Europe, because the last time we were able to implement a free trade agreement was in 2011 with [South] Korea.”
Geert Bourgeois, the Minister-President of the Belgian region of Flanders, told the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that the region could lose 2.6 per cent of its GDP by 2030. He told BBC’s Newsnight. “I met twice [with] Barnier I brought him to Zeebrugge, 45 percent of the trade, of the export, from Zeebrugge is to the United Kingdom, so that’s why I do my best to influence all the people, the ambassadors of the surrounding countries, to work together.”
Xavier Bertrand, leader of France’s Hauts-de-France region, told Newsnight: “I know one thing for sure, nobody has the right to punish the UK and the British people, it was a sovereign choice.
“A lot must be explained because this connects to Europe as well, there are a lot of questions, but what I know is, punishing and looking to punish is a terrible mistake, it would be a bad message to send. It was the will of the people who voted, regardless of the consequences. It would give rise to the feeling that there is something with more power than the will of the people or wanting to go against the will of the people – that would be a terrible error.”
Edgar Rinkvis, Latvia‘s Foreign Minister told Channel 4 News after Mrs May’s speech in Venice that the UK accepting its financial obligations up until 2020 was an acceptable approach. “We’re happy to support that.”
Dalia Grybauskaiter, President of Lithuania, said: “ It is time for real negotiations and not just negotiating in the media by rhetoric … Let’s go straight to the table.”
Are we moving up a level?
After Brexit do they reduce the budget or increase payments of the 27? The latter would require unanimous agreement and some countries won’t agree. Austria, Denmark and Sweden are saying we are not going to pay a penny more when the UK leaves; countries such as Poland are saying we will not receive a penny less. France won’t accept reduced agricultural subsidies, Eastern Europeans will want to hang on to their structural funding and the EU itself will want to continue its ‘green’ programmes, and its bosses’ luxury lives.
Antonio Tajani, European Parliament president, dismissed Britain’s £18billion offer as “peanuts”. We know these Eurocrats don’t want snacks, they like expensive fare at their dinners (plus breakfast, lunch and supper) provided it’s being paid for by others, like British taxpayers.
Alexander de Croo, the deputy prime minister of Belgium told the BBC’s Hardtalk in June, “There is no one in Brussels is waiting to punish the UK government and the UK citizens. … Let’s be clear, we are ready to negotiate any kind of deal that the UK wants.” Ah, but in the same interview he made clear there should be no cherry picking and the “divorce” must be settled before any “re-marriage”. The messages are not always as clear as they seem, if quoted selectively.
Michael Fuchs, vice-chair of Angela Merkel’s CDU party, said he believed the figure should be between 60billion and 100billion euros (what a feast!). Merkel says: “I see the ball not only in the UK’s court but I also see it in our court to the same extent. … We’re going to achieve a good result, there will be a good outcome.” For whom?
But don’t worry, we have friends in high places. Jean-Claude Juncker commented “I want to have a fair deal with Britain.” Donald Tusk claimed talk of deadlock had been “exaggerated”.
Some EU members are more equal than others. German politicians have so far appeared to place the EU Project above its own people’s jobs (Germany has an enormous trade surplus with Britain of £2-3 Bn a month) but Merkel needs the free-market FDP party’s support to form a majority in the Bundestag so the German foreign ministry has drawn up proposals for a “comprehensive accord” with the UK. The draft paper (leaked and obtained by Bloomberg) suggests Berlin is privately anxious to secure a ‘comprehensive’ trade deal with one of its largest trading partners. The paper has been circulated across the German government but does not yet form its official policy on Brexit. Merkel could also come under some pressure from fellow leaders to soften her stance on a transition, with some member states now keen to offer Britain an olive branch. How much does their support matter?
So, everything is clear as mud (as usual).