TELEGRAPH OP-ED: Juncker Thinks He Has Britain Over A Barrel. Au Contraire Mon Ami

“Britain’s example will make everyone realize it’s not worth leaving,” says European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The President of the European Commission, on hearing the UK will trigger Article 50 on Thursday week, demanded a £50bn “divorce payment”.

So what if the UK has made some of the largest financial contributions of any member state? Since 2000 alone, we’ve paid £90bn more to the European Union than we got back.

So what if Britain’s military and security officers, by playing a leading role in Nato – as one of very few members meet our 2pc-of-GDP defence spending commitment – has helped keep countless EU citizens safe?

As an unelected eurocrat, Juncker wants to make an “example” of Britain, making unreasonable cash demands designed to provoke. Desperate to defend his bureaucratic empire, Juncker vows to “punish” Britain, to dissuade others from leaving.

The vast majority of British voters back constructive relations with our continental counterparts. We’re leaving the EU, not Europe. Theresa May is right to declare Britain wants to remain Europe’s “best friend and neighbour”. It is disappointing Brussels starts our new relationship by plucking incendiary numbers from the air and presenting UK taxpayers with the bill.

Agreeing to this payment, we’re told, is “a precondition” for any talks on Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU. The UK should make no such concession – for three main reasons.

Firstly, while we may indeed end up paying some “Brexit charge” – for EU pensions and other programmes we may want to stay part of – the actual amount is integral to what will clearly be a multi-faceted negotiation. Far from opening the talks, any monetary payment should be the final piece of the UK’s Article 50 jigsaw.

Secondly, whatever Juncker says, there are huge industrial interests across the EU desperate for a UK trade deal. Germany’s all-powerful auto manufacturers know Britain is their largest market. For French food-producers and Italian furniture-makers, UK access represents billions of euros of profits and countless local jobs. As Juncker grandstands, commercial lobbies will be whispering to current and prospective political leaders for UK-EU trade barriers to be kept as low as possible.

The third reason to hold our nerve, not giving an inch on payments as the Article 50 talks start, is that the UK will be fine if no EU deal is struck during the two-year window and we instead use World Trade Organisation rules.

“Half-memberships and cherry-picking aren’t possible,” says Juncker. On that, at least, he makes sense. The UK should remain outside the single market and also outside the customs union. Negotiating “special UK membership” in return for “freedom of movement” concessions risks pulling the EU apart, as other members demand the same. The entire edifice, the single currency and all, could come crashing down, shaking the global economy to its foundations. A “clean Brexit” is safer – for the UK and EU.

America’s EU exports totaled over a quarter of a trillion dollars last year, from “outside” the single market. Chinese, Japanese and Australian firms similarly enjoy “access” by meeting EU regulatory standards and, where necessary, paying low tariffs – and ours can do the same. Britain’s EU trade can thus continue, without the massive loss of sovereignty, even if we do “no deal”.

Outside the customs union, too, we can cut our own trade agreements with the 85pc of the world economy beyond the EU, while enjoying lower import prices once we don’t have to pay Brussels’ common external tariff.

The UK is a strong position. A free-trade agreement would be preferable, but we can trade quite happily with the EU on the same basis as do other leading economies. We anyway already trade far more with the rest of the world – largely under WTO rules. Any early concession on a final payment, would be unnecessary, while encouraging even more outlandish EU demands.

Juncker complains of “growing impatience in Brussels” with the UK, after May didn’t trigger Article 50 last week. The government actually delayed out of respect, so as not to upstage tomorrow’s 60th Anniversary celebrations of the EU’s founding Treaty of Rome.

“In Europe, you eat what’s on the table or you don’t sit at the table,” says Juncker. Such intransigence shows why he and his bureaucratic ilk should be excluded from the front-line of UK-EU talks. With goodwill and skill, elected politicians in the UK, Germany, France and economies across Europe should be able to negotiate calmly and sensibly, achieving a mutually acceptable outcome.

Monsieur Juncker, you’ve had your pommes frites.

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