First published in The Independent on 3rd May, 2017.
The EU without the UK – known in Brussels-speak and this article as the EU27 – remains a deeply divided place. With disputes over migrant quotas, the continued tension between creditor and debtor countries, and the endless debate about whether to move towards an ever closer union, in most areas the EU27 cannot claim to speak with one voice. However, the UK appears to have done European unity a favour. In my 13 years as an MEP, I have never seen my continental colleagues as united as in their approach to Brexit.
Ever since the Brexit vote, there has been an underlying change in the way friends and colleagues in Parliament treat me. A fellow MEP introduced me recently to her daughter. “This is Neena,” she said, “but she’s leaving now.” It may be becoming cliché, but the best analogy for Brexit is that it is like a divorce. The only difference is that the UK is going through a divorce with 27 spouses, who all now get along.
So while Britain must of course scrutinise the final amount of our obligations to the EU27 – whether it should be £10 billion, £60 billion or the £100 billion reported today – the unfortunate truth is that sooner rather than later we are going to have to swallow our pride and come to a settlement. Every divorce is expensive, but the sooner we can agree on a figure, the more quickly we can make a long-term deal.
While the figures being discussed would make any Chancellor’s hands shake on budget day, spread over the course of 20 years or so, they would be manageable. At the very top estimate of the gross €100 billion, spread over two decades, the cost would be just 0.6 per cent of the UK budget.
Crucially we must see the bill as an antidote to the much larger costs of not settling. In the much maligned corridors of Brussels, MEPs have made it clear to me that without a reasonable divorce settlement, Brexit negotiations will end prematurely and we will be forced to accept WTO tariffs.
The costs of this on our economy will dwarf any bill. In fact, the UK treasury itself estimated a hard Brexit will cost the British economy £66 billion per year and shrink our GDP by nearly 10 per cent. Stalling negotiations over the Brexit bill would be like dissolving your profitable company over a dispute with your telephone company. I regularly meet small and medium-sized business owners in my constituency, the West Midlands, who are losing tens of thousands of pounds each week because of our weak currency. Being chucked out of the single market with no replacement deal could leave some at the back of the growing queues of Tory Britain’s food banks.
Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to ask the question: why does the EU want us to keep paying for membership after we have checked out? Without going into too much detail, which you can find more of here, the bill will cover budget commitments we have made over the past decades and contingent liabilities – for example bailout loans to Ireland – which will only need to be paid in certain circumstances.
It is not just businesses and their workers that will be hurt without a deal. There are so many issues the Government is taking for granted. Just one of many wounded parties in this divorce will be the 29,000 UK citizens currently undergoing dialysis, who are not able to take out private insurance when travelling abroad. Currently EHIC cards cover their treatment in EU countries, but when we leave, who will cover the bill? Because of costly routine treatments, many sufferers will no longer be able to visit friends and relatives in Europe.
At May and Juncker’s now infamous meal, May reportedly said that Britain was not legally obliged to pay a penny. Though the precise amount of the bill is reasonably up for debate, if May expects to get a new deal without settling the bill, Juncker was correct to describe her as living in a “different galaxy”. This may be the first of many situations in the next few years where the jingoistic arrogance of Brexiteers will have to square up to the reality of Britain’s diminished global influence. It may stir nationalistic fervour in the short term for the PM to tell the electorate that we won’t pay, but in the longer term, a hard Brexit of this type would leave voters poorer, without foreign medical cover, and without the benefits of vital research links.
Instead of posturing as a robotic reincarnation of the Iron Lady in front of the British electorate by refusing to recognise the bill, if May is still Prime Minister after 8 June she should accept our obligations and settle on a figure. By calling a snap general election, the Prime Minister has already delayed Brexit negotiations by at least two months – and realistically until after the summer – in an already tight two-year window. Let’s settle on a figure because we have no more time to waste.
Finally, it’s important to recognise that EU politics is less confrontational and more cooperative than the weekly screaming matches in Westminster. Since leaving the mainstream centre-right group in Parliament, the EPP, in 2009, the Conservative Party has become more detached from how EU politics works. Labour remains a part of the mainstream in the EU and this is reflected in our much more constructive approach to Brexit. If we want to build a place for Britain as an independent but outward-looking nation in Europe, we must work with our future partners, not against them.