Expert View

UK increasingly isolated as May demonises Brussels

by Denis MacShane | 04.05.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels.

Whether by design or default, Theresa May has chosen to demonise the politicians and bureaucrats of the European Union as a prominent plank in her election campaign. It may win her plaudits from the pro-Brexit fanatics in the populist UK press, but it suggests a sorry disregard for the need to win friends abroad.

For centuries London has always found (or at times bought) allies on the continent. Even in 1940, Britain could count on Polish and Czech air force pilots, a full-scale Polish army that came to Scotland after the fall of France, General de Gaulle’s Free French forces, and friendly neutral nations like Switzerland. Now the rest of Europe shakes its head in well-nigh universal sadness and dismay at the isolationist stance of the Brexit British.

When Margaret Thatcher negotiated the UK budget rebate in 1984 she had powerful centre-right friends in European governments willing to help find a solution. Today the dominant federation of centre-right parties in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, which includes Angela Merkel, Mariano Rajoy, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk among its leading members, is united on its Brexit policy.

A full-page advertisement in the Brussels weekly Politico sets out their demands – so far unreported in the UK media. These include:

  • EU citizens will not pay the bill for the British
  • EU citizens will not accept British blockades
  • The right order of negotiation must be respected
  • Peace settlements cannot be put in danger
EPP advert in Politico

EPP advert in Politico

The last point on Northern Ireland has had next to no coverage in the British press. Yet Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, told me that if the UK quits the customs union (as Theresa May has threatened), there would have to be customs control posts on the 310-mile frontier between Northern Ireland in the UK and Ireland in the EU. It would be an external EU border. Even if the common travel area that allows all Irish citizens to travel, live, work, vote and stand for election in the UK is maintained, the creation of customs control posts with the Union flag flying above them on all roads crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be a red rag to any Irish nationalist brought up on the Sinn Fein-IRA culture of hatred of the “Brits”.

Barnier and Juncker are politically accountable to EPP leaders like Germany’s Merkel or Spain’s Rajoy, with his special interest in Gibraltar.

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    Unfortunately the UK Conservative Party left the EPP in 2009 to set up its own private club of right-wing MEPs, cruelly dubbed by Nick Clegg as “nutters, anti-semites and homophobes”. That may be a little harsh on the Tory-dominated European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group. Only two of the 23 member parties have more than five MEPS – the Conservatives themselves, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), whose ministers in Warsaw have made clear they are sticking firmly with the EU27, especially on the rights of Polish citizens in Britain and on the need for Britain to agree to pay its financial obligations as the first stage in any withdrawal deal. That is what they mean by “the right order of negotiation”.

    Other parties in the ECR with delightful names like the Ordinary People’s Party of Slovakia and the Family Party of Germany have just one MEP and zero influence on national let alone European politics.

    David Davis, now Brexit Minister, was opposed to quitting the EPP in 2009 as he knew from his time as Europe Minister under John Major that being in the EPP network was useful for building alliances. Now for the first time in its 300-year history the Conservative Party has opted out of making (or buying) friends and influencing people across the Channel.

    This political isolationism is never reported in the British press but it leaves the UK government alone and without friends of real power and persuasion as it embarks on the most difficult period of Britain-Europe relations seen in centuries.

    Edited by Quentin Peel

    2 Responses to “UK increasingly isolated as May demonises Brussels”

    • It makes me so very angry and so very sad that the wicked divide and rule policy the nasty Tories are inflicting upon us and the even more wicked abuse they are hurling at our European friends is proving to be so damaging to this country’s best interests. What is wrong with these small-minded xenophobic idiots that they are so determined not only to damage the country’s economy, but also the future of the whole nation? I really do despair.

    • I wonder if anybody still remembers the constant aggressive newspaper hullabaloo of a few years ago, about the vast numbers of “needless, expensive, faceless” civil servants, employed by the EU in Brussels, as compared to Britain.
      Has anybody yet been able to get some idea of how many, if any) civil servants will have to be added to the existing British numbers after Brexit?
      Can we assume that the overall saving on the basis of those newspaper reports is mind boggling and easily offsets any sort of large payment to the EU?