Since the UK voted to leave the EU just over a year ago, it has felt as though all we have heard from Europe is how much we should prepare to suffer.
No talk of a trade deal until we’ve paid the upfront fee. No appetite for a fast-tracked agreement on export requirements, despite the fact that British companies already adhere to EU consumer standards. A divorce bill that keeps increasing, and is non-negotiable.
In all that time, there has been little analysis of what it might cost the EU to plug the vacuum left by one of its highest-paying members. All we had was the offhand retort of an Italian economy minister to Boris Johnson’s warning about selling less prosecco: ‘“you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries”.
In reality, the price for the EU could be a lot more than the lost income from a few bottles of prosecco. On Wednesday, European budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger laid out the stark reality facing the bloc: a post-Brexit budget black hole of €10-12bn per year, thanks to the exit of the second most generous member state. And that is only considering the current spending. Once all the extra initiatives the EU wants to develop are counted, primarily security and defence schemes, the EU is looking at an annual deficit of €20bn.
Britain spends more on defence than any other EU country – $15bn more than its closest rival France. Our military and security prowess, particularly with regards to intelligence, is the envy of the rest of Europe – and for good reason. When it comes to confronting the existential issues facing the EU in the foreseeable future – namely terrorism and the risk of conflict to the east – Britain’s departure means the loss of crucial expertise, unless a sensible deal can be reached. Oettinger’s stark assessment this week demonstrates what a high priority this must be for the EU, whether its members are prepared to admit it or not.
While the UK is still just one nation against 27, and has an extremely rocky road ahead in terms of negotiations, we should unashamedly acknowledge our advantages where we have them. And on the issue of spending and defence expertise, Britain holds some hefty cards.