Brian Monteith: Brexit plan or no Brexit plan, the EU has always been a bully

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk. Pic: Francisco Seco/AFP/Getty Images
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk. Pic: Francisco Seco/AFP/Getty Images
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Donald Tusk is simply trying to sow division with his insulting attitude to Brexiteers, says Brian Monteith

By its own actions last week we can see the EU political elite is on its collective back foot and the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole Parliament, have to hold their nerves if they are to gain concessions they could find acceptable.

The huge defeat of the Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and the subsequent passing of the “Brady amendment” have shown the EU that if it “replaces” the backstop with “alternative arrangements” then a deal might be approved after all.

Instead of giving succour to the prime minister and strengthening her hand at Westminster by making sweet overtures the various EU Presidents, bureaucrats and negotiators turned to chauvinism and insult. Their deliberate choice was to apply disruptive tactics to cause division in the British government and on the backbenches of both parties.

Making an obviously premeditated insult (because he had to read it out) the EU Council President Donald Tusk said. “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.” As I read it on Twitter I was actually sitting in a press conference listening to a panel including former ministers David Davis (leaver) and Greg Hands (remainer) working together to launch a draft UK-EU Free Trade agreement that runs to over 350 pages.

Over the last five years I have read countless plans for how Brexit could be delivered and been involved in publishing quite a few of them myself. The false narrative put about by the EU and its counter revolutionary remainers that there was no plan or identifiable consensus about leaving the EU can easily be shown as a big lie.

In 2015 “Business for Britain”, which was later to evolve into “Vote Leave” and become the designated campaign, published a blueprint of 1,000+ pages for departing the EU called “Change, or go”. It was hard to miss, given it was freely available on the internet and serialised by the Daily Telegraph. There was also the Institute of Economic Affairs Brexit Prize, a competition awarding 100,000 Euros for the best plan. It attracted nearly 150 entries, and after being whittled down to six strong contenders the winner was Iain Mansfield, a serving member of the UK diplomatic corps with expertise in trade policy.

Other organisations, such as Global Britain and Better Off Out produced lengthy papers reviewing the options for a new relationship and making recommendations on the best way forward. These led to the growing consensus amongst Brexit campaigners that the UK had to leave both the Single Market and Customs Union if the UK was to take control of its laws, its money, its borders and its trade. There was another highly detailed plan called “Flexit” that recommended a Norway-style association, but this was rejected by all the three campaigns for Brexit – Vote Leave, Leave.eu and Grassroots Out, thus emphasising campaigners were advocating full sovereignty. I personally worked on two individual papers for Scotland and Northern Ireland and later three papers on the Single Market, Customs Union, development aid and financial services, all of which concluded a clean Brexit was the best way to leave.

One think-tank organised widely reported war-gaming sessions, held in advance of the referendum to establish what negotiations might be like and determine the best approach to take.

After the referendum the refinement of existing plans or launch of new ones has not stopped with papers from the Legatum Institute (The Brexit Inflection Point); the IEA (Plan A+); Better for Britain (A Better Plan and the draft UK-EU FTA); and Global Britain’s “Fact – not friction” written by Peter Lilley. The European Reform Group and others have published papers on how to manage the Ireland-UK border without hard infrastructure. Even the UK government had a plan it was developing at the Department of Exiting the EU, only for it to be suppressed by the Prime Minister after she panicked in December 2017 and agreed to her disastrous backstop arrangement.

All of these were more than a sketch, none of them were written on the back of fag packets or envelopes.

Of course Donald Tusk knows all of this, he will have seen some if not all of those plans, but he wanted to sow discord the day before the Prime Minister was due to meet him and other EU bullies. So too did Verhofstadt who said, “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them”. Most abusively of all, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker was photographed with a well-wisher’s card, revealing the message “Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland”. I lost two personal friends to the IRA and found the clowning around of Junker and Teasoich Varadkar utterly despicable.

In the end all this insulting and bullying has backfired for it was a typical misreading of British character and only strengthened the resolve of most MPs. It comes as no surprise to me that polling shows a growing trend amongst the public towards leaving the EU without any transition period, keeping our £39bn and trading on the WTO rules that are good enough for China and the US.

For all the EU’s aggression the reality is it has already conceded a willingness to redraft the Political Declaration, but as that is not an International Treaty like the Withdrawal Agreement it would have no legal standing. Meanwhile the alarm about no deal from individual EU members states is mounting and the protests about EU negotiating tactics in the parliaments of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland and others is becoming more vocal.

We should recall that before the referendum David Cameron asked for some minor reforms (all published) that he believed would ensure a victory for remaining in the EU. The EU sent him and his plan away with a flea in his ear. Just imagine where we would be now had they agreed to Cameron’s plan. Unfortunately the EU leaders are not reasonable people. It had to be their plan – or walk. So we walked.

Plan or no plan the EU has wanted to teach the UK a lesson and demonstrate to other member states leaving is difficult. Now it is their deal – or walk. If they show no ability to compromise then, again, we are left with no alternative but to walk and embrace WTO rules that give us back control.