Until the leak from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) early this week, I had thought that Brexit was going to bring the EU together.
As outlined by the lawyer and Financial Times columnist, David Allen Green, it has prompted a big degree of unity among member states, which have worked for months on a joint policy document that will be very difficult to change.
If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that, last year, I ‘campaigned’ (from my sofa) for the UK to remain in the EU, because I do think the world is a better place when countries are closely bound together.
But then European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had dinner with UK Prime Minister Theresa May and leaked his version of the lot to FAZ, a highly respectable German newspaper. This was just after May had requested confidentiality.
Then the EU demanded €100bn upfront because, in its own opinion based on no objective criteria whatsoever, it thinks the UK might not pay up.
There is a difference between playing tough, as the UK is clearly doing*, and playing dirty. It reminded me of the bad old days for Cyprus and Greece, when anonymous leaks from “senior Commissions officials” were widely used to put pressure on the party that was running out of time and money to do a deal.
The UK won’t run out of money. But it does have a big clock ticking, risking a very steep cliff edge that will disrupt more business, banking, trade and local services than we can possibly imagine.
The anonymous EU officials probably think that using the time-honoured tactic of playing dirty with the weaker party was a successful strategy. But I follow quite a few Brexit voters on Twitter and “look how they treated Greece” (by which they probably also mean Cyprus) is an extremely common refrain.
Remember that infamous video of the London cabbie screaming about robbing Cypriots of their deposits? It summed up very well how the British felt about it all.
Let’s not forget it was the UK, not any Eurozone member, which sent its top Treasury official to help Cyprus in its very darkest hour, when it looked like we were going to crash out of the euro.
All these nasty tactics by certain senior EU officials seep into the psyche. They reinforce the feeling that the EU is run by a bunch of suits who care only for themselves. This applies not only to Britons, but to other voters in more sceptical member states. In other words, this kind of behaviour is a risk to the EU’s long-term survival.
The EU’s dark under-belly
It was during the Cyprus crisis that I became less of an idealist about the EU. I saw that beneath all the good things the EU does (and somehow persistently fails to promote well) – protecting equal rights, workers, the environment, health and safety, good governance and so on – there is a dark underbelly.
One of these is the way in which it is turning a blind eye to men, women and children drowning every week in the Mediterranean or in squalid Greek camps because, with a few honourable exceptions like Germany, countries can’t get their act together to form a joint policy on welcoming people fleeing war and chemical attacks.
The other is the way it behaves during tough negotiations – like with Cyprus, Greece, and now the UK.
We are going to see a lot more of this nasty side in the coming months. I fear it will turn me, a long time pro-European, into a Brexiteer. What will it do to voters in Denmark, the Netherlands and France?
*Post script: since writing this the UK has also clearly also been playing dirty. This does not detract from the primary point: that when officials’ behaviour causes the EU’s most ardent supporters to lose faith, then the entire EU project is at risk.