“How did the evening go with Theresa May?” Jean-Claude Juncker was asked at last week’s EU summit in Brussels. The Commission president responded by blowing a very audible raspberry.
EU leaders have always ruled out sitting down for talks on Brexit until the UK triggers the formal departure process. But plenty of analogies to food – along with the odd insult – have been thrown across the table.
Both Juncker and the European Council President Donald Tusk have warned Britain there can be no “à la carte” access to the single market menu.
Angela Merkel has told the UK more than once there can be “no cherry-picking”.
Boris Johnson looks like someone who enjoys a good food fight. He has gleefully maintained that Britain can have its Brexit cake and eat it.
Rapping the table like an exasperated headmaster, Donald Tusk insists there can be no cake for anyone, ‘only salt and vinegar’.
A row between Tesco and Unilever over who should bear the cost of the sliding post-referendum pound saw the temporary disappearance from online sales of Marmite: a national treasure for some, “a sludgy and odd-tasting breakfast spread” according to the New York Times.
At last week’s summit dinner, it was one o’clock in the morning by the time Theresa May finally got to speak. The pan-fried scallops, crown of lamb with roast fig and iced vanilla parfait had long been eaten – and other EU leaders reportedly greeted the prime minister with a stony silence. Some Brexiteers were most offended.
While Charlie Hebdo sums up the feelings of many in Europe towards Brexit, British tabloid derision of foreign and particularly EU targets is not new. The Marmite row saw Unilever’s CEO branded a “Dutch fatcat” in The Sun, as “Remain-loving bosses” were accused of using Brexit to exploit consumers. Par for the course.
Bremoaners and Brownshirts
But amid the post-referendum, pre-talks phoney war, within the UK itself guns have been blazing in all directions. As arguments rage over the government’s Brexit strategy, parliament’s role, the economy, immigration and so on, social media in particular has caught fire.
Given the fascist connotations, the outraged replies to Paddy Ashdown’s comment cascaded down his Twitter page. After first volunteering to change the term to “stormtroopers”, the former Liberal Democrat leader finally exclaimed:
Amusing for some, scandalously offensive to others. But on both sides of the Brexit divide, portraying opponents as extremists has become commonplace. Certain elements in the pro-Brexit camp have called into question their adversaries’ patriotism.
In the preface to its opinion piece, the Daily Mail accused “embittered Remainers” of being “Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic.” On at least one occasion nationalist flag-waving has gone overboard. Christian Holliday, a Conservative councillor from Guildford, launched a campaign to make support for UK membership of the EU post-Brexit an act of treason, punishable by life imprisonment.
In true British style, the petition was ridiculed into oblivion and the councillor suspended by his party. But for some commentators, a long-standing obsession with sovereignty and patriotism among the eurosceptic right has become dangerous.
“What was once a fringe view now goes right up to the heart of government and the press,” argues Ian Dunt, editor of Politics.co.uk. Citing a tweet by the Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Brexit Minister David Davis, he summarises the message: “To be patriotic is to demand Brexit on the hardest possible terms. To believe otherwise is to, at best, not love your country. And at worst wish to betray it.”
However, calls for new laws that could result in opponents being jailed are not exclusive to Brexiteers. One anti-Brexit campaigner seeking to prosecute politicians for “lying” has been quoted as saying: “I can’t decide what happens to them, but if I could… prison.”
Calm down, calm down
Conceding that the Brexit negotiations will require some ‘give and take’ with the EU, Theresa May has said that a “constructive approach” can deliver a “smooth departure” from the EU. The danger is that a hardening of stances on both sides might lead to a poisoned atmosphere from the start.
“If we approach it in a sensible way, because the European system is a deal-based system, there is more scope for trying to resolve it intelligently, than if we go at it in a way where we all end up shouting at each other,” Britain’s former EU Commissioner Lord Hill recently told BBC Radio. “I think we have this kind of false choice in the UK often between hard Brexit/soft Brexit: I think the choice is between stupid Brexit and more intelligent Brexit, and that is what we need to go for.”
In the meantime, expect the food fight to continue.