The humiliation came in three stages, spread over three days. The first stage was on Tuesday 11 July 2017, on the floor of the House of Commons. During a debate on exiting the EU, the UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson was asked:
“Since we joined the Common Market on 1 January 1973 until the date we leave, we will have given the EU and its predecessors, in today’s money in real terms, a total of £209 billion. Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the EU that if it wants a penny piece more, it can go whistle?”
Johnson’s answer was:
“I am sure that my hon. Friend’s words will have broken like a thunderclap over Brussels and they will pay attention to what he has said. He makes a very valid point; the sums that I have seen that they propose to demand from this country seem to me to be extortionate, and I think that to “go whistle” is an entirely appropriate expression.”
Brussels could go and whistle over any financial payment in the exit agreement. Here the foreign secretary was doing little more than repeating what was said at that infamous dinner at Downing Street, where (according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung):
“The subject of money came up in conversation. The EU estimates costs of 60-65 billion Euros for London. May argued that her country didn’t owe the European Union one penny; after all, there’s nothing in the treaty about a final tally due in the event of an exit.”
The second step of the humiliation came the day after, on Wednesday, at a press conference given by the EU chief negotiator on Brexit, Michael Barnier. He was asked about the “whistle” comment. With the air of a headteacher telling the pupils that it is only their own time they are wasting, he responded:
“I am not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking.”
The third stage was the admission by the UK government on Thursday that it was, in fact, accepting that it was to pay an amount to the EU on departure. This was spotted by the FT’s bureau chief in Brussels Alex Barker as a written answer to a parliamentary question. The relevant portion of the answer was:
“On the financial settlement, as set out in the Prime Minister’s letter to President Tusk, the Government has been clear that we will work with the EU to determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of our continuing partnership. The Government recognises that the UK has obligations to the EU, and the EU obligations to the UK, that will survive the UK’s withdrawal — and that these need to be resolved.”
This went subtly beyond what was said in the Article 50 letter of 29 March 2017, which had stated:
“We will need to discuss how we determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the United Kingdom’s continuing partnership with the EU.”
As Alex Barker reported, EU diplomats said the wording “goes further” than Theresa May’s previous reference to Britain being willing to reach a “fair settlement” of unspecified (not necessarily financial) obligations.
In effect, Thursday was the day the whistling ended. This, of course, is no surprise. Unless something unexpected happens, the story of the Brexit negotiations will be one of the UK giving way on each contested point. Britain promised the “row of the summer” over the sequencing of the negotiations before quietly capitulating. The UK appears to be now accepting the principle of some payment to the EU on exit.
There are two main reason for these setbacks. The first, which was set out in a trilogy of posts on this blog (here, here and here), is that the EU has prepared properly and practically for these negotiations. The EU knows what it wants, can justify what it wants and has worked out how to achieve it. Britain is instead saddled with a prime minister whose idea of “getting on with the job” includes calling and then losing unnecessary general elections.
The second reason is that UK ministers are, in fact, negotiating with the wrong people (as set in on this blog in November). Ministers are engaged in attempting to win over, as much as possible, their own backbenchers and the tabloid newspapers. A martian looking down on these ministers would assume that the EU exit negotiations were of secondary importance to winning political and press support. The Brexit agreement has an auxiliary role to the need to say the right things to the right people domestically.
Such is the closeness of Westminster political and media worlds that the foreign secretary and others do not realise there is anything about international agreements beyond joking with backbenchers and political correspondents. For Mr Johnson and those laughing along with him, Mr Barnier and his team are no closer than Alfred T. Mahan’s far distant, storm-beaten ships.
As pro-Brexit ministers attempt to bluster or chuckle their way through any form of scrutiny, the EU negotiating team is there waiting patiently, knowing the clock is ticking away. There will be attempts by ministers and their supporters at avoidance, evasion and diversion. There will be name-calling and strident demands for patriotism. There will be blame-mongering and jockeying for succession. But what there will not be is any relevant minister taking this as seriously as the EU is doing.
This week may have seen the day when the whistling stopped. But far more important is what Britain will have to show for itself when the ticking of the clock stops in just over 20 months’ time, and is replaced by the sound of silence. Even Mr Johnson may fail to raise a smile then.