The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favor of taking a tough stance against Britain in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, planned to take place over the coming two years. MEPs in Strasbourg approved a resolution that clearly laid out a series of red lines, the firmest of which stated that trade talks will only take place once the U.K. has settled its financial liabilities—a.k.a. the looming, possibly $60 billion Brexit bill—and confirmed the status of its E.U. citizens. This directly dismisses Theresa May’s vision, laid out in her Article 50 letter, in which she envisaged talks on trade and the terms of the divorce taking place at the same time.
The vote, and the heated debate that preceded it, placed further emphasis on the starkly different approach towards Brexit that has been adopted by the U.K. and the E.U.—a divide that May’s government is thinly attempting to paper over. The fanciful notion that the U.K. can define the terms of its own deal has been widely ridiculed both home and abroad. This reminder that the terms of Europe’s most high-profile divorce will have to be given consent by the hundreds of members of parliament who are equipped with vetos, deems it even more absurd. “You will have the last word,” stressed Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator, speaking to MEPs.
“We do not seek to punish the UK,” he continued. “But simply ask the U.K. to deliver on its commitment and undertakings as a member of the E.U.” The problem is that the leaders of May’s government are under immense pressure to deliver on the commitment and undertakings they promised as arbiters of Brexit. Again and again, the post-Brexit £350 million a week pledged for the N.H.S. rears its head, only to be elbowed out of headlines by a Tory party weak at the knees and in denial at the prospect of shelling out billions to the bureaucrats they loathe in Brussels.
As ever, Nigel Farage used the debate as a platform to promote his brand of acidly gloating aggression. “You are behaving like the mafia,” he told MEPs, inciting jeers throughout the room. “You think we’re hostage. We’re free to go.” (After being told his language was unacceptable, Farage acknowledged the “national sensibilities” involved, offering instead that MEPs were behaving like “gangsters.”) “It’s not us that will be hurt,” he went on, identifying other foreign adversaries. “We don’t have to buy German motorcars, we don’t have to buy French wine, we don’t have to eat Belgian chocolate.”
Perhaps he is planning on asking Arron Banks, the millionaire who bought Brexit, to free him up by paying off Britain’s bills. Farage’s verbal assault fell on particularly stony ears. Last July, he cheerfully informed MEPs they were part of a failing political project, and rounded off his tirade by telling the assembled politicians: “virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives.” Jean-Claude Juncker, now an expert at putting-down belligerent populists replied, in a wearied tone of exasperation, “the British people voted in favor of the exit; why are you here?”