The Brexit negotiations will probably stay stuck after this week’s meeting of the European Council.
The situation is simple. The remaining 27 European Union states (EU-27) want to extract as much money as possible from Britain as the price of an exit deal.
This British money would allow the EU to avoid swingeing and divisive EU spending cuts. The EU-27 position of refusing to discuss a post-Brexit trade relationship until Theresa May’s government agrees to cough up is designed to achieve this goal.
Symmetrically, May wants to delay an agreement on the money until after serious trade negotiations have begun.
This is partly because this will give the EU-27 an incentive to offer a decent trade deal. And it’s partly because she wants to avoid being denounced in the right wing tabloids for offering the EU money with nothing in exchange.
The situation is of course bedevilled by May’s own weakness and the divisions within the Tory party.
Look at the behaviour of foreign secretary Boris Johnson and chancellor Philip Hammond over the past couple of weeks. May can’t control either pro or anti-Brexit wings of her cabinet.
This seems to be encouraging the EU-27 to hang tough. Though this won’t look so clever if May falls and they have to deal with Johnson as her successor.
Of course, all sides in the Tory inner-party struggle are united by Thatcherite politics and contemptible Little England nationalism. But this shouldn’t give the EU-27 a free ride, as the liberal left are inclined to do.
From the EU, we see the pure arrogance of power in the words of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. “I’m not in a revenge mood,” he said. “I’m not hating the British. The Europeans have to be grateful for so many things Britain has brought to Europe, during war, after war. But now they have to pay.”
Juncker was equally revealing when justifying the EU’s support for the Spanish government against Catalonia. “If Catalonia is to become independent, other people will do the same,” he said.
“I don’t like that. I don’t like to have a euro in 15 years that will be 100 different states.”
Juncker is the former prime minister of Luxembourg, a micro-state whose main role is to serve as a tax haven for multinationals from outside Europe. Why should it enjoy the rights of an EU member state but Catalonia—a far larger and more populous country—be denied them?
This is a sharp shift in EU ideology. When the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union in 1992 there was much talk of how political decentralisation—“subsidiarity” in EU-speak—would flourish.
Political scientists argued that Europe’s “multi-scalar governance” would allow regions below the level of the existing nation-states to gain greater autonomy.
This encouraged nationalist movements in places such as Scotland and Catalonia to seek independence within the EU.
The treatment of Greece and now Catalonia are the act of the EU. It’s an imperialist cartel of states preoccupied with propping up its unworkable monetary union.
Notice that Juncker says that giving Catalonia independence might threaten the euro.
There is a logic to this stance. French president, Emmanuel Macron wants greater economic integration in the eurozone. Germany—the dominant EU state—will only accept a more centralised enforcement of austerity.
There’s no room for “subsidiarity” in a EU-policed regime of permanent austerity.
Indebted EU member states offered “solidarity” by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund have been micro-managed by teams of neoliberal technocrats. Relative to these larger scale transformations, Brexit is collateral damage.
Britain is an imperialist state with the fifth largest economy in the world. It’s big and nasty enough to look after itself. There’s no reason to sympathise with Britain in its confrontation with the EU.
But anyone who thinks the EU-27 represent the progressive side in this grubby carve-up is kidding themselves.