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The EU is not punishing the UK
20 Apr, 2019

It’s just a club with rules


We have to win the argument with Leave voters who believe that the EU’s refusal to give the UK the sort of deal promised by Brexit campaigners is a punishment. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes


Punish v tr 1. Cause an offender to suffer for an offence. 2. Inflict a penalty for an offence (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

For such a widespread idea, it is quite hard to pin down what it means. It is easy enough to find the EU’s motivation to which it refers: the EU could not let the UK leave the EU and retain all the benefits of club membership without club obligations. Tick; that must be true – but is not of course punishment. Those who use the punish motif also refer to human emotions: annoyance at the affront to the EU’s self-esteem, say. Maybe; though it is hard to believe that would survive the reality of trade talks.

There really does not seem to be anything more underpinning the claim than annoyance that the EU will not let us have our cake and eat it; that the EU takes seriously the shared commitment to avoid a hard border in Ireland, supports member-state Ireland against soon-to-be-ex-member UK, and refuses to believe in non-existent technology; and that the EU seems to believe that Brexit means Brexit.

The backstop has proven particularly fertile ground for the punishment theory, especially the all-UK temporary customs union. That is odd. The all-UK coverage was something the EU did not want – they sought only to have Northern Ireland in the customs territory. The all-UK customs union was one of Theresa May’s rare negotiating successes – and as close as the EU came to allowing cherry-picking.

 We as Remainers of course see Brexit as the UK punishing itself by negotiating a deal which is worse than the one we have.

The brutal logic of Barnier’s slide makes clear the consequences of the UK Government’s red lines:




But Brexiters do not see it that way. Describing their viewpoint, Jonathan Lis puts it well: “Because we see ourselves as unique, the same treatment as any other third country is necessarily punishment”.

All we as campaigners can do is keep explaining: if you stop paying your magazine subscription the publisher is not punishing you when they stop sending you the magazine. That’s how it works when you leave a club: you lose membership privileges.



The rest of this article sets out the sources, sadly unrevealing:


Public Opinion

The idea that the EU is out to punish the UK is quite widespread, as shown in opinion polls – and that is disregarding those which ask who is most to blame for the failure of the negotiations to produce a good result without mentioning “punish” as a motivation:

47% agreed that other European countries would obstruct a good deal in order to punish Britain and discourage other countries from leaving (April 2017 – YouGov for Sunday Times)

62% thought the rest of the EU were not really trying their best to agree a good deal – they wanted to punish the UK and stop other countries wanting to leave (November 2017 – Lord Ashcroft polls)

61% agreed that the EU were demanding a £50bn divorce bill because they wished to punish the UK for leaving (November/ December 2017 – Survation for Mail on Sunday)

60% agreed that the EU was trying to punish the UK by not compromising in negotiations with the UK on trade, freedom of movement and other matters (August 2018 – Deltapoll for Sun on Sunday)

44% blamed the EU leaders for the then current state of Brexit negotiations as they just wanted to punish Britain for wanting to leave (September 2018 – Deltapoll for Sun on Sunday)

61% agree that it has felt as though the EU has been trying to punish the UK over the Brexit negotiations (March 2019 – ComRes)


Note that several of these questions were agree/ disagree style. Here is a general warning from YouGov’s Anthony Wells about why you should be wary of such questions.


It’s all Remainers’ fault

In January 2016, The Adam Smith Institute published Dr Madsen Pirie’s "Ten Bad Arguments for Staying in the EU”:

  • No 7 includes  “Some commentators seem to think that if the UK voted to leave, then the EU would act vindictively to punish it for doing so by cutting trade links.He cites pro-EU MP Stephen Kinnock saying the UK would get a punishment beating if we left. Pirie goes on to explain that there would be a free trade agreement, thus making the usual Brexiter elision between the single market and a free trade agreement.
  • No 8 refers to the French punishing us for leaving by no longer policing the migrant camps near Calais.
  • No 10 dismisses claims that the EU would punish the UK by retaliating spitefully against UK tourists.

Get Britain Out, in a page that may date to before the referendum but that has at least been updated since the referendum, describes as Europhile Myth No 15 that the EU would have a trading agenda to punish the UK to gain an unfair advantage.

The only pre-referendum poll I can find with “punish” in a question is by Opinium in May 2016. It asked whether if we voted to stay other European countries would punish us for having organized a referendum in the first place. 22% thought it was a genuine concern, while 47% thought it was scaremongering.


Some Europeans refer to (not) punishing

Some explain what they mean by punishment

For example, Hans-Olaf Henkel, German MEP and industrialist, said in July 2017 that EU negotiators were out to punish the UK, make an example so that no-one else would leave the EU. By the very fact that they say that a country which leaves the European Union should not have the same deal as a country which is in the European Union you can demonstrate what they mean.


Others do not explain their meaning

 On 5 July 2016, Sweden’s finance minister Magdalena Andersson said that the EU should not punish the UK. But she went on to explain that the UK would not be able to cherry-pick.

In January 2017 Guy Verhofstadt explained that no-one wished to punish the UK but it could not expect the benefits of the single market without accepting the obligations.

In March 2017 Marine le Pen said that punishment for triggering Article 50  was “undeniably the intention of the EU. The EU wants the divorce to be as painful as possible. That's simply because they can feel that other nations of Europe want to leave this political structure.

In June 2017 former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said that the EU “wanted to punish Britain, even if it means a mutually disadvantageous deal for the peoples of Europe”.

Former Czech President Václav Klaus said in January 2019 that “the European Empire … wants to punish and humiliate Britain for saying that the EU is not the best.


Britons who refer to punishment

The Sun in February 2018 conflated Barnier’s call for sanctions for breach of an agreement with some EU countries’ call for a wider agreement.

In September 2018 Jeremy Hunt played to the Conservative Party Conference gallery while ostensibly addressing the EU At the moment you seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves”.

In October 2018 Dr Shelia Lawlor of Politeia explained that the EU was punishing the UK for leaving. The punishment took the form of insisting on membership of the customs union in order to obtain its benefits, rather than relying on technological solutions; and requiring compliance with single market rules to obtain its benefits.

In October 2018, Stewart Jackson, former MP and former Chief of Staff to David Davis at DEXEU saw the semi-permanent customs union of the Irish backstop as the EU’s punishment of the UK.

In January 2019, Greg Hands MP explained that the EU was seeking to punish the UK for Brexit. He cited the bits of the Withdrawal Agreement he did not like, eg the Backstop, as evidence. The statements attributed to EU officials have been denied by them.

In January 2019, Daniel Hannan MEP cited a press report that Barmier had said (translated from his French) “I’ll have done my job if, in the end, the deal is so tough on the British that they’d prefer to stay in the EU.”. Since Hannan referred to the post-Brexit transition period as “non-voting membership” one should perhaps not take him too seriously. But he located the punishment in the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement – the rest of the WA he would sign.


There’s no punishment

In January 2018, Chuka Umunna visited EU leaders and officials and reported: “Overall, the dominant sentiment is that far from seeking to punish the British people for voting to leave the EU, the EU27 see this whole Brexit process as “damage limitation”. They believe Brexit is bad for them and us.”

The BBC’s Europe Editor Katya Adler explained in June 2018 that whether the EU was punishing the UK was the question she was asked most often. No was her answer, the EU – like the UK – is looking after itself: “The EU wants a good Brexit deal. It believes it’s in its interest. The bottom line? It will never, ever, ever give the UK everything it wants in negotiations. Why? Because if it does it risks making leaving the EU seem very tempting.”

Jonathan Lis of think tank British Influence argued in Prospect (November 2018) that the myth of EU punishment lies in the psychology of Brexit: “The answer takes us to the heart of Brexit: namely, a co-dependent myth of domination and grievance. The EU must validate both our Anglocentrism and our victimhood, and thus simultaneously revere and attack us. Because we see ourselves as unique, the same treatment as any other third country is necessarily punishment.

Professor Sara Hagemann looks in April 2019 at how the negotiations looked from the point of view of the EU: "The reality for EU governments is that Brexit represents a significant political and economic loss, at a time where they cannot afford vulnerability".




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