Today, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson admitted that the UK will have to pay its financial obligations to the EU. Boris Johnson, who had previously complained that the divorce bill was “extortionate” and EU leaders could “go whistle,” has today agreed that the sums he has seen are high, but “We will certainly have to meet our obligations.”

Johnson said that he did not accept the EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s “interpretation of what our obligations are. But I’m certainly saying that we have to meet our legal obligations as we understand them and that’s what you’d expect the British government to do.”

While Bojo didn’t indicate a sum the UK government would be comfortable with, he did, however, stress that he continued not to agree with certain figures suggested by EU leaders, such as the €100bn (£92bn) bill. However, the £100 billion bill was not a number proposed by the EU but the media, and has always been open for discussion. Attempting to excuse his U-turn, Johnson said that his previous comments—reflecting a big majority of Leave supporters’ views that the UK should pay nothing to the EU—Johnson explained that back then he was being asked “about some very large sums of money, I think 100bn euros or pounds, that the EU commission suggested we were on the hook for. That’s not a figure I recognise.”

EU Brexit divorce bill: What is it?

The UK’s departure from the EU means that whatever financial promises the UK has made to the EU, these would need to be kept.  If the UK declines to pay anything, something that no EU country would agree to, would either force other member states to pay more into the EU budget or it will affect spending in less wealthy countries. 

Apart from outstanding budget commitments, the EU wants the UK to pay EU officials’ pensions, contingent liabilities, and other costs relating to the withdrawal. In relation to the EU officials’ pensions, the UK might try to cover only the costs of UK nationals working for the Commission, in order to pay less since British officials are under-represented. The term “contingent liabilities” refers to payments that should be made upfront to cover possible future scenarios. For example, when the 2015 EU accounts were drawn up, unpaid loans to Hungary, Ireland, Portugal and Ukraine reached €49.5 billion. Withdrawal costs would include any costs relating to the relocation of the two London-based EU agencies: the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency. Other costs involve those incurred from the withdrawal of the Joint Research Centre nuclear sites and funding (until 2021) British teachers who have been transferred to European schools.

Dog-whistle politics

Dog-whistle politics refers to political messages targeting the biggest possible number of voters and appealing to their demands and values. It’s a tactic that fits in with populism and is meant to offer simple and sensational answers to appeal to a large majority of voters while obscuring the complexities of the issues. 

Boris Johnson, for example, was accused of “dog whistle racism” by Chancellor John McDonnell in April 2016, when, as a Mayor of London, he reiterated Trump’s myth of President Barack Obama being “part-Kenyan,” to explain why Obama hated colonialism and the British Empire, and thus favoured the view that the UK should remain in the EU.

The particular messages that have been circulating by right-wing populist parties within Europe and such political anti-European figures as Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Bojo, contributed to undermining democratic values by appealing to the populace. Right-wing populists usually exaggerate, misrepresent or twist the truth to serve their political, anti-immigration and undemocratic rhetoric.

The Brexiteers’ campaign, for example, is emblematic of the kind of dog-whistle politics that seeks to occlude real problems and inequalities, by exaggerating or manipulating the population’s frustration with global capitalism and neoliberalism’s destruction of social relations and welfare provisions, to say the least. By diverting attention away from real and complex issues, Bojo and company sought to appeal to a generalised feeling of disenchantment which has its roots in real-life inequalities and the extraordinary concentration of wealth and power in the upper echelons of society. This, particularly, was diluted by Farage’s Ukip party into the populist mantra of the people against the oligarchs and power elites. Farage and Bojo sought to represent the people against the European elites and posed as their ultimate enemy the immigrant and the foreigner who stole jobs away from British people and helped increase unemployment. The Brexiteers spread the belief that these “undeserving” minorities and “dangerous” foreigners needed to be controlled, and Brexit rhetoric manipulated opinion to attract votes. Promises made before the UK referendum vote were not kept and grandiose statements about taking back control, controlling immigration, ending the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction and abandoning the single market appear retrospectively to be misguided, misleading, or impossible.

Politicians like Farage, for example, find it easy to promise to British citizens that it’s morally and economically sound to abandon the bloc or not pay our EU obligations. But, while he will be enjoying his EU pension, the rest of us will have to deal with the economic consequences of Brexit.

But, to return to Bojo, the Foreign Secretary’s dog-whistle politics and empty rhetoric of Brexit “certainty” and “speed and efficiency” in relation to the negotiations, is a misleading tactic that presents a positive attitude while hiding insecurity and lack of concrete knowledge about the negotiations. It reveals that the Brexiteers’ promises were hot air and the road ahead would be rocky and uncertain.