Tuesday 22 October 2019

John Downing: 'Ridiculing Boris is pointless - the real point is trying to get him to cut a late Brexit deal'


Boris Johnson: His strategists will be rubbing their hands over opinion polls. Picture: Reuters
Boris Johnson: His strategists will be rubbing their hands over opinion polls. Picture: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

As the nights draw in, Xavier Bettel could well recur in a pub quiz near you. If you had half an eye on the news over the last 48 hours you probably learned that he is prime minister of Luxembourg.

Yes, he was the one with that empty podium following their meeting on Monday - the podium meant for visiting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who opted out of the press occasion because of nearby raucous British anti-Brexit demonstrators

The tiny EU founding member state is about one third the size of Cork and has half the population of Dublin. It has been admirably supportive of fellow small member state Ireland on many occasions, notably since the Brexit vote in June 2016.

Prime Minister Bettel gave a very warm personal welcome to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on a well-received visit to Luxembourg last June. We should also recall that outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose Brexit loyalty to Ireland has been steadfast, is also a Luxembourger.

Keeping those important points in mind, we should further stress that what follows is not an attempt to denigrate Prime Minister Bettel. But we must make a few points to him, and other colleagues on mainland Europe, about the futility and dangers of ridiculing Mr Johnson.

Granted, it is often tempting to stop and point out what a chump he really can be. Often enough, it is an important way of taking down pressure after the frustrations of suffering the arrogance and ignorance of Mr Johnson and his Tory acolytes.

But, more or less always and everywhere, it is also quite a pointless exercise - sometimes it is quite counter-productive.

It was indeed worth a giggle to see Mr Bettel, on many television screens late on Monday, gesture several times at the empty lectern beside him as he addressed Mr Johnson in absentia.

"We need written proposals and the time is ticking - so stop speaking," Mr Bettel implored the missing-in-action Mr Johnson at one stage. "Act!" he later implored.

The pointlessness of all this - and the potential dangers - were summed up by a quick flick across page one of the pro-Brexit Tory newspapers in the UK yesterday. The Conservative 'Daily Telegraph' had a huge banner page-one headline stating simply 'Luxembourg laughs in Johnson's face'.

Usually more polite these days, 'The Times' stated the prime minister was "ambushed". 'The Sun' reported that he was the victim of a "feeble stunt," while the 'Daily Mail' went into franglais to dub it all 'Le Stitch Up'. The ultra-Brexit 'Express' thundered 'No wonder Britain voted to quit the EU'.

In a sense, you could hear the Brexiteers, who accounted for 52pc of the vote in the referendum, and are still not far off that number, harden their attitudes. You could see the Johnson strategists rub their hands and ponder the next opinion polls and an impending general election.

Anyway, the real reason Mr Johnson was in Luxembourg was to see Mr Juncker. The meeting with Mr Bettel was, no offence intended, a side-bar.

The Downing Street officials had asked in vain for the press conference to be moved indoors. Luxembourg officials said there wasn't enough public space inside to accommodate the journalists.

Others, who are critical of Mr Johnson, said the demonstrators were not much nearer than those in London when other interviews are conducted.

But we can leave all that and note that Mr Juncker said the UK PM still has no proposals on any new potential deal.

Irish Independent

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