Friday 18 October 2019

Johnson's big Brexit deal leaves EU 27 standing firm

In Europe the feeling is the Tories are engaged in a blame game, but no one else wants to play, writes Paddy Agnew

Boris Johnson leaves the stage with his partner Carrie Symonds after delivering his speech at the Tory Party Conference last week. Photo: PA
Boris Johnson leaves the stage with his partner Carrie Symonds after delivering his speech at the Tory Party Conference last week. Photo: PA

Paddy Agnew

If British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his advisers have long gambled that it was just a matter of time before the united front presented by the other 27 EU member countries would disintegrate, they may have got it wrong.

Even in the week of Johnson's much-hyped Brexit deal, there was no serious sign in Europe of a break in the 27-strong ranks.

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The unending Brexit drama turned up another beauty last week, namely Johnson's closing speech to the Conservative party conference in Manchester. For French daily Le Monde, this was the Tory party, caught up in "pleine derive populiste", rejecting its own "historic values... of pragmatism, respect for [state] institutions and for the rule of law".

Mr Johnson "fait du Boris" - he is doing his Boris act, said Le Monde. He called on his compatriots to seize "this great opportunity", he tweeted a call to "get Brexit done" and to "let's finally believe in ourselves"... but the problem is, of course, that on the other side of the channel, few believe in Boris.

Given the proceedings at the Court of Session in Scotland last Friday, one should probably amend that to say that "very few" on this side of the channel believe in Boris. The revelation that the British prime minister, in court documents, has confirmed that he will seek an extension from the European Union if no withdrawal agreement has been agreed by October 19, clearly adds a barrel of high octane fuel to the slow smoulder mess of Brexit.

In other words, what do the PM's repeated assurances that he will "get Brexit done" by October 31, that the UK will leave the EU by October 31 "come what may", "or I'll die in a ditch" et al... what does any of that mean?

Can you really believe the UK prime minister?

Before last Friday's court hearing, the Sunday Independent asked one senior EU diplomat in Brussels for an opinion of the latest Brexit deal, as outlined by Johnson last Thursday.

The reply was revealing: "Around here, the feeling is clearly that he is playing the blame game... then, too, no one takes Boris seriously around here. He's simply seen as unreliable, a liar... many of us remember him from his days as a Telegraph reporter here when he was always inventing stories..."

As for the idea that Northern Ireland could somehow remain in the single market yet opt out of the EU customs union, creating not one but two borders, that is just "half-baked". As Politico EU pointed out, "the British prime minister could not seriously expect the EU to agree to it".

So what now? A running joke in the corridors of EU power in Brussels gives the answer: "Who needs Netflix when you've got Brexit? It's now in its third season, full of drama and passion and you never know what is going to happen next."

At least one Brussels insider points out that if "multilateralism" is the "key word around here", then "unilateralism" appears to be the key word "over in the UK".

In others words, we are talking about different visions of the world. In particular, we are talking a UK Brexiteer vision full of imperialist nostalgia, which sees the United Kingdom as "still a world power" and which above all sees the UK as a "key ally for the USA".

All of this, of course, with the long-term aim of creating some form of Singapore-on-the-Thames that will critically undermine the EU.

One of the countries that might have been expected to break ranks amongst the 27 is Poland.

So, the Sunday Independent questioned colleague Jacek Palasinksi, long-established foreign affairs expert and TV presenter in his native Warsaw...

"Poles look at a country like Britain, a symbol of stability, and they see that the chaos there is increasing every day and they are confused and they ask themselves what's going on..."

Poles are not ready to break ranks, he says - even if there is serious concern for the future of 800,000 UK-based Poles. "For myself," adds Palasinksi, "I agree with Barnier, this - the Johnson proposal - is a trap, a way of ensuring that the blame game works against the EU when and if the UK crashes out... and for that reason it is obvious that the EU has been very careful not to immediately reject the proposals."

That proposal to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker - on Downing Street-headed paper complete with a lovey-dovey "Dear Jean-Claude...Yours ever, Boris" signature - clearly does not convince everyone.

Rome daily La Repubblica spelt out a reality that is blatantly obvious to many Europeans: "The EU and the Irish in Dublin will say that the Johnson proposal is not good enough because the EU single market is not adequately protected, because the much feared border checkpoints could prove necessary and, above all, because the EU is simply not going to accept that the UK, via the Belfast parliament, can unilaterally pull the plug on this potential agreement."

As we head into another potentially turbulent week in the Brexit show, there is no sign that critical Brexiteer strategy is working. Namely, Johnson and advisers still hope (a) to crack the 27 member United Front and (b) that, in consequence, Ireland will in some way be forced to reluctantly compromise its stance on the backstop.

As Johnson travels down his rocky road from the Supreme Court to the Court of Session, passing via the Greater London Authority (his 'friendship' as Mayor of London with US business woman, Jennifer Arcuri), most European observers would probably conclude that, right now, he looks just a little "unreliable".

Nor is the PM's standing much helped - in the eyes of the 27 at least - by the accusation of former UK chancellor, Philip Hammond, to the effect that Johnson is backed by hedge fund speculators who have invested billions on a hard Brexit. These funds, of course, expect to profit from the disastrous effects of a no-deal crash out.

More important, though, than hedge funds or bizarre Scottish court proceedings (hands up anyone who had even heard of the Court of Session or the nobile officium before last week) or alleged inappropriate friendships is another consideration. Johnson's proposals last week fall at the first fence because they would undermine the EU Holy Grail - namely protection of the integrity of its EU single market. It's the economy, stupid.

Clearly, EU partners are worried for Ireland. Italian Five Star Movement MEP Fabio Massimo Castaldo probably spoke for many MEPs when he told the Sunday Independent last week: "Obviously, a no-deal Brexit would harm above all the citizens of Ireland, north and south, nor would it be possible to accept any deal that does not offer a guarantee of the protection of the rights of those who will be living on what will be a new European Union border..."

Yet, even if the EU cares about Ireland, the all-island economy and the Good Friday agreement, at the end of the day, it cares much more about the sacred space of its single market. Stand on those toes and watch what happens.

From a European distance, this looks like a good, old-fashioned power struggle. The Brexit/Eurosceptic camp wants out of the European Union and into the arms of the USA, in the process doing as much damage as possible to the EU, a potential huge future competitor.

That is certainly the view of Italian political researcher, Tullio Pontecorvo, author of the blog Europe, My Country. He may be overstating matters, but he still has a point when he wrote last week: "The British strategy... was meant specifically to 'blow up' the legal coherence of the European Union.

After all, if each member state broke ranks to sign its own deal with the UK, the logic underpinning the four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, capital and persons within the EU) would be fatally undermined.

"To paint a stark picture of the scope of the challenge: should the EU wish to retaliate in kind, it could offer Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland immediate EU membership if they secede from the UK. It hasn't... so far"

Now there's a thought.

Sunday Independent

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