Thursday 19 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Did Angela introduce some much-needed Brexit fudge?'

No one was really sure what to expect when Mr Fawlty went to Berlin - but last week's visits may point to a way forward

NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his notes as he attends a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last Wednesday. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his notes as he attends a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last Wednesday. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Good old Angela. We have a chequered relationship with Angela in this country. It's hard to imagine this today, but, just as the Brits are now reinstated as the cause of and the solution to all of our problems, the last time we had a major crisis in this country we temporarily forgot about 800 years of oppression and blamed Angela and the Germans for everything. There were banners at football matches and general stereotyping about the Germans, and vaguely racist tropes and all the familiar things that happen when we make someone the Bogeyman.

Since then, we have reluctantly come to accept that Angela may well be the last adult in the room.

When you survey European leaders, who seem to be either right-wing populists or else navy- suited, corporate manboys who could have been emollient hotel managers in another life, Angela is a giant. She doesn't seem, the way many of her so-called peers do, like the kind of person you'd meet at a triathlon who works in finance in some vague job that he can't really explain. Rather she seems solid, tough but fair, full of common sense.

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And it was Angela who changed the Brexit game when she met Boris, who is a strange hybrid of navy-suited manboy and right- wing populist.

It's fair to say even the Brits must have been a bit nervous about sending Boris out to schmooze Germany. It felt a bit like sending Basil Fawlty. There was a tiny part of all of us that wouldn't have been too surprised if Boris had ended up goose-stepping around or telling Angela that, to paraphrase Basil, 'you started it, you invaded Poland'.

Boris's history with Johnny Foreigner, and specifically with Johnny European Foreigner, is not great. Indeed it was Boris, in his days as a journalist, who did so much to feed the UK stereotype about the EU as a nuthouse of pointless petty rules and regulations that make no sense, with his stories about everything from fishermen being made to wear hairnets to the building of a 3,000m-high tower of Babel from which Europe was going to be ruled.

Even his fans will admit Boris was a clumsy Foreign Secretary as well. And given that he was going to Germany promising to give it "Oomph", there was a feeling anything could happen.

There was a telling moment on Sky News on the eve of Boris's visit to Berlin when a German talking head was asked what kind of reputation Boris had in Germany and he involuntarily laughed, before gathering himself and apologising. That's where we were at.

As it happened, Boris was largely house-trained in Berlin and he and Angela managed to fake, or not, a certain warmth. And then Boris, according to his supporters, secured the first big win of his European tour when Angela basically said to him that if he has an alternative to the backstop, why not come up with it now instead of in the next two years?

Boris, who often seems to think he is in a Victor or a Warlord comic, took Merkel's mention of 30 days as a challenge, and also as a chink in the EU armour. It was a blistering timetable, he admitted, but it could be done. Because, of course, Boris is all about can-do optimism.

And so on he went to Paris, the sap up in him and his supporters. Macron, on the face of it, looked like a trickier proposition. Macron is, as he admitted himself on the day, the hard man of Brexit. He views it as an internal British problem and his main concern is that it doesn't contaminate Europe, which has more important challenges to deal with right now.

The chemistry was also going to be trickier with Macron. He was pushing the whole optimism thing long before Boris. Indeed, one of Macron's central fixes for France, when he installed himself as a sun-king-style ruler, was to perform what Boris might call a pessimismectomy on the nation.

The body language at the meeting showed two men trying to out-bounce, out-smile and out-positive each other. It was all manic handshaking, and mild tussling over who got to lead who to the next position - which led to them practically walking with their arms around each other's shoulders like lovers at one point

As the two grappled like frat-boys, one was reminded of Norman Mailer's dictum that "when two men pass one another in the street and say 'Good morning', there's a winner and a loser".

In the end, Macron probably won by letting Boris think Boris had won. It was viewed as a spectacular 'one-two' by Boris's supporters. Having got some movement from Merkel, he had apparently opened up a gap with Macron as well, when Macron said that he too hoped there could be a solution in 30 days, with goodwill on both sides.

You'd wonder at what point it dawned on Boris that he had been completely played. Perhaps back in the quiet of Number 10, as the slight mania that characterised his trip calmed down, and he had more time to think, it may have struck Boris that having spent the previous week portraying the EU as the problem, Boris himself was now the problem.

The next move was now his, and it's doubtful what kind of a hand he has.

Before he took off on his European jaunt, Boris was actually doing quite a good job of looking like the reasonable guy who wanted to talk. He sent off his letter to Europe, and however disingenuous it may have been, it looked like movement.

When Donald Tusk among others shut it down quickly, Tusk via Twitter, it made Europe look like the ones who weren't willing to try to find a solution. Boris's disingenuous insistence that he didn't intend putting up any borders was a passive aggressive little swipe at Europe, and the Irish, who will potentially of course be the ones who have to put up borders. Boris, who kept making the point that the deal containing the backstop had been rejected by parliament three times, so he needed something new, was beginning to seem like a plausible, almost sympathetic figure, and the Europeans as the unreasonable ones.

But no more. Wily old Merkel and cute Macron have told Boris they're dying to hear his alternatives to the backstop, the sooner the better. Bear in mind the backstop exists only for the worse-case scenario where there is no better idea. And that's all that Boris was told in Europe.

But, you know what, at least people are talking. At least there is some semblance of movement; negotiations may not be going anywhere, but they aren't dead. And perhaps we got a hint during the week, especially from Merkel, as to what might be our last chance to save the day here.

Never forget that the North as we know it, and the peace as we know it, is built on a solid foundation of fudge. We muddled along with that fudge for years, but Brexit has opened the box of the Schrodinger's Cat that is Northern Ireland, a country that managed to be British and Irish and both and neither simultaneously.

And maybe, in the absence of a logical solution that can contain all the contradictions around Brexit and Ireland, we need another helping of fudge to get us past the next stage without a catastrophe. And Angela, who is long enough at the rodeo to know that not everything is black and white, seemed to be vaguely stirring the fudge pot last week in Berlin.

We all deserve better than a mere game of chicken around this. And there's a fair amount of delusion on both sides here, so maybe we could use that delusion to kick the can down the road a bit. After all, have we got a better option right now?

Call me crazy, but should someone call Bertie?

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