Gove’s blackmail scheme would backfire horribly

by Hugo Dixon | 25.04.2016

Michael Gove thinks he’s come up with a clever plan. If we vote to leave the EU, the justice secretary will use Britain’s veto to force the rest of the EU to give us good divorce terms. In fact, such a ploy would lead to a bloody battle, clobbering the economy and poisoning relations with our partners.

Gove wrote in The Times today: “The other countries will know that until a deal which suits us is reached we still retain a veto over their plans. So that gives us all the cards.”

The snag is we don’t have all the cards.

First, the rest of the EU doesn’t need our approval to do most of what they will need to do in the next few years. Most decisions are taken by qualified majority voting, under which a group of countries accounting for 65% of the EU’s population can push legislation through the EU’s council. We account for 12.7% of the population so – outside certain areas such as foreign policy, tax, creating new treaties and admitting new members to the EU – we have no veto.

At present, the UK is pretty good at getting its way in the EU, despite lacking a veto. This is because we form alliances. But you can bet that, as soon as we started implementing Gove’s plan, the rest of the EU would unite in a solid phalanx against us. He would have achieved with his clever-clever scheme what centuries of British soldiers and diplomats fought so successfully to prevent.

Second, if the EU did need a new treaty – say to shore up the euro zone – and we were being bolshy, the other countries could sidestep our veto by signing a completely new agreement outside the confines of the EU. That’s what they did in 2011 when David Cameron attempted to block plans to tighten eurozone fiscal policy.

Third, time is not on our side. Once we formally notify the EU of our decision to leave, under Article 50 of the EU treaty, we set a two-year clock ticking for the divorce – after which we would quit without any deal at all, if a settlement had not been reached.

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    Gove is right that Britain should not launch this process immediately. But it is politically fanciful to suppose that we could vote to leave and then sit in European meetings year after year trying to sabotage our partners’ efforts. The British electorate would expect us to start the separation process within a few months, after a new prime minister had been chosen and had figured out what our negotiating position should be. Once we had triggered Article 50, our backs would be against the wall.

    Gove isn’t the first person who has had the clever idea of blackmailing the EU to get what he wants. The UK has also had a similar policy before, when John Major said we would vote against all EU measures in retaliation for action taken to restrict British beef exports. That had mixed results. Greece’s radical left Syriza government also toyed with that tactic last year when it was trying to persuade other euro zone countries to give it billions of euros with few strings attached. It backtracked when it was staring into an economic abyss.

    Britain isn’t in nearly as weak a position as Greece. But Gove’s clever plan would still cause such acrimony that businesses would cut their investment and consumers would retrench. Even without his ploy, the UK could be tipped into recession. With Gove pulling the strings, we could be staring at several years of lost jobs.

    It wouldn’t be only the economy that would suffer. The idea that Britain would be able to cooperate harmoniously with the EU on a whole range of other issues that matter for us – such standing up to Vladimir Putin, fighting terrorism and combatting global warming – would be for the birds.

    This piece has been published simultaneously on The Telegraph website

    Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

    Edited by Jack Schickler

    One Response to “Gove’s blackmail scheme would backfire horribly”

    • Wish the Brexiteers would make up their minds. One day we’re told that Britain’s utterly powerless in Europe, the next that we are in a position to blackmail Europe to do our bidding! We have no control over our borders, but let’s urge the Home Secretary to use her powers to deny Marie Le Pen entry into the country.