3 May 2017

The PM should ignore Juncker’s Brexit bluff

By Phil Hendren

You may have seen​ this morning that the EU, channelling itself through the Financial Times, is now saying that the so-called “divorce bill” for Brexit is €100 billion and is getting tough. Don’t believe the hype.

Putting aside how ridiculous it is for them to think that Brits will now say “Oh no Mrs May you must cancel Brexit!” as opposed to “Sod off!”, there is a simple reason they’ve put it up.

It’s because they know the bill has no legal basis whatsoever, and, I’d hazard a guess, they’ve realised they all but admitted it with their silly briefing games over the weekend and are now in a blind panic about not getting the money.

The hacks and commentators, in their frenzied excitement at the briefing, and their inability to join the dots over time, have missed the glaring omission in the FAZ briefing that shows this to be true.

Let me take you on a journey to join those dots.

A few months ago, on March 4, you may recall that a House of Lords subcommittee, chaired by a Lib Dem Remainer, published a report stating that the legal position of the UK not paying anything was strong, and that there was no legal obligation for the UK to pay a single penny. This was based, among other things, on the fact that that the treaties themselves, and the Article 50 process, makes no mention of financial commitments upon exit.

That report further argued that while walking away without paying would not necessarily be desirable, it said that any payment made would be a political gesture, not a legal requirement.

The following weekend it was reported that legal opinion circulating in Whitehall had confirmed the House of Lords’ position that the UK did not legally have to pay anything and went further, stating that the EU actually held £9 billion in the ECB that belonged to the UK that it was legally obliged to pay back.

In the space of two weekends, the news cycle had gone from the UK owing nothing to the EU, to the EU owing the UK £9 billion.

The response from the EU naturally came in the form of a document leak on March 21. This leak found its way to a Dutch newspaper and stated that if the UK said it didn’t have to pay, the response would be “see you in the Hague”. It outlined a plan to take the UK to court to get the money because they were confident in “other legal opinion”.

Now let’s take a look at that briefing Juncker’s bag-carrier gave to FAZ this past weekend. May had told them, it said, that the UK had no legal obligation to pay a penny. What, then, was their response? Did they threaten court action? Did they mention the legal obligation? No, they threatened to not give the UK a trade deal and threw a few insults in about May being “delusional” for good measure.

Does that sound like someone confident in “other legal opinion”? Of course not. It is a massive positional change to go from “we have the law on our side”, to “we only have politics on our side”. They clearly either had no such “other legal opinion”, or had gambled that they might be able find some and failed to do so.

That they’ve dropped the legal line illustrates a level of weakness in their position. They need us to negotiate with them because if we don’t, they know they won’t get a penny.

And the reason they’ve suddenly ramped up the mythical bill, is because they’ve realised that any settlement will be a political one and can only come about through negotiation. By raising the total, they have calculated they’ll be more likely to end up with a settled figure close to the sum needed to plug their devastating budget gap.

So what should May’s response be to this latest figure? Silence. Hold the line and nerve and let them tie themselves up in knots as they panic at the prospect that we pay nothing, walk away and adapt our economy to handle their no trade deal threat.

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared on @dizzythinks blog

Phil Hendren is the political blogger known as @dizzy_thinks