Britain must make a radical move if it is to avoid the snare set by Brussels, which wants Brexit to fail, writes Greece’s former finance minister
September 10 2017, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Varoufakis arrives at a meeting in Athens while he was the Greek finance ministerGETTY
Brussels’s cheerleading journalists are at it again. Their mission? To aid and abet the EU negotiators in winning the blame game over the failure of Brexit negotiations that Brussels is doing all it can to guarantee.
That Michel Barnier and his team have a mandate to wreck any mutually advantageous deal there is little doubt. The key term is “sequencing”. The message to London is clear: you give us everything we are asking for, unconditionally. Then and only then will we hear what you want.
This is what one demands if one seeks to ruin a negotiation in advance.
Ever since Theresa May embarked on her ill-conceived journey towards an ill-defined hard Brexit, I have been warning my friends in Britain of what lies ahead. The EU would not negotiate with London, I told them. Under the guise of negotiations it would force May and her team to expend all their energies negotiating for the right to . . . negotiate.
Meanwhile, its media cheerleaders would work feverishly towards demeaning London’s proposals, denigrating its negotiators and reversing the truth in ways that Joseph Goebbels would have been proud of.
Right on cue came the leaks that followed the dinner that the prime minister hosted for Jean-Claude Juncker in 10 Downing Street on April 26 — their explicit purpose being to belittle their host. Then came the editorials by the usual suspects — the journalists that Brussels uses to leak its propaganda — deploring the “lack of preparation” by the British — using Berlin’s and Brussels’s favourite put-down that “they have not done their homework”.
As I promised on the day I resigned from Greece’s finance ministry, after my prime minister’s capitulation to that same Brussels-Berlin cabal, I wear their loathing with pride.
But I worry that Brussels and Berlin may succeed in damaging Britain, as they previously succeeded in damaging my people.
Reading between the lines, the message to London from the EU propaganda machine is fourfold:
- The EU will not budge. Brussels’s worst nightmare is a mutually advantageous economic agreement that other Europeans may interpret as a sign that a mutiny against Europe’s establishment may be worthwhile. To ensure that there will be no such deal, Barnier and the European Commission have not been given a mandate to negotiate any concessions to Britain regarding future arrangements such as a free trade agreement.
- Angela Merkel will not step in to save the day. The only national leader who is capable of intervening therapeutically did not do this for Greece and she will not do it for Britain.
- London must not try to bypass the rule of EU law. Every time London makes a proposal, Brussels will reject it as either naive or in conflict with “the rule of EU law”; a legal framework for exiting so threadbare that it offers no guidance at all regarding the withdrawal of a member state from the union. In this light, when they speak of the “rule of law” what they really mean is the logic of brute force backed by their indifference to large costs inflicted on both sides of the English Channel.
- Prepare your people for total capitulation — that is your only option.
None of this is new. It springs out of the EU playbook that was thrown at me during our 2015 negotiations. I had bent over backwards to compromise on a deal that was viable for Greece and beneficial to the rest of the eurozone. It was rejected because being seen to work with us risked giving ideas to the Spaniards, the Italians, indeed the French, that there was utility to be had from challenging the EU establishment.
To kill off any prospect of a mutually beneficial agreement, we were forced to negotiate with Barnier-like wooden bureaucrats lacking the mandate to negotiate, while Merkel turned a blind eye to the impending impasse. As for the “rule of law”, or the “rules” that German officials always appealed to, it was nothing but an empty shell that they filled with whatever directives suited them.
What can be done to prevent a capitulation that, in the end, would be bad for Britain and bad for Europe? Earlier this year I suggested that May accepts the impossibility of sensible negotiations with the EU. Once she accepts this, two options are available.
One option is to make the EU an offer it cannot afford, politically, to refuse. For example, request an off-the-shelf Norway-like (European Economic Area) agreement for an interim period of no less than seven years. Tactically, this would render redundant Barnier and his team; offer certainty for business, EU residents in Britain and Brits living in Europe; as well as allow Merkel to relax in the belief that the problem has been passed into the lap of her successor.
It would also serve the purpose of respecting Brexit, in the sense that Britain would leave the EU forthwith while restoring sovereignty to the House of Commons by giving MPs the space and the time fully to debate what future arrangements Britain wants to establish long-term with the EU.
The second option is the only one available if the immediate end of free movement and of the role of Europe’s courts in the UK is deemed paramount: unilaterally withdraw from all negotiations, leaving it to Brussels to come to London with a realistic offer regarding free trade and other matters.
If Brussels does not, it does not. While the EU is struggling to respond, the British government should grant British citizenship to all EU residents unconditionally, followed by a statement that secures the moral high ground: “We have no quarrel with Europeans. Indeed, we have just done what is right by EU citizens in the UK. Let us now see how our friends across the Channel behave.”
Of the two options, the first is immensely preferable. The second option will pile up great costs on British business, probably stir up renewed xenophobia and reinforce Europe’s reliance on authoritarian incompetence.
In contrast, the first option of a Norway-style interim arrangement gives parliament a genuine opportunity to debate Britain’s future without the eerie sound of a ticking clock in the background.
Maybe, by the time the interim transitional period that I propose has lapsed, the EU will be a democratic union that the people of Britain might want to rejoin. While the chances are slim, leaving that possibility open is a great source of desperately needed hope.
One of the reasons I opposed Brexit was that the UK would expend an inordinate amount of economic and political capital in pursuing withdrawal, ending up more intertwined with Brussels after Brexit than it was before.
In my view it was better to struggle against the EU’s anti-democratic establishment from within than from without. Alas, Britons were not persuaded by such arguments and voted to leave. As a democrat I respect their verdict, but fear that May will fall into the EU trap.
Meanwhile, Brussels’s cheerleaders are advising London to learn the wrong lessons from Greece.
The right lesson is to deny the EU the opportunity to wear Britain’s negotiators down until they capitulate. A Norway-style interim agreement or the immediate cessation of negotiations are the only two options.
As an Anglophile and a radical Europeanist I strongly support the former.
Yanis Varoufakis is co-founder of DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, and the author of Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment published by Bodley Head, £20
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