Even though the press paid a lot of attention to Boris Johnson’s taking of office theatrics, and in particular his doubling down on his promise of an October 31 exit and stocking his Cabinet with radicals to help assure that, there were a couple of signals from the EU side that are worth noting, which we’ll cover after a short recap.
We said early on that the course of Brexit was showing troubling parallels to the Greece 2015 bailout negotiations. Specifically, from the outset, the UK overestimated its bargaining leverage. Too many well placed pols and pundits convincing themselves that the EU would be more damaged by a crashout than the UK and therefore would be desperate to avoid a no deal. A more reality-based way of coming to a similar conclusion is that EU pols will always favor kick the can down the road over making a difficult decision, particularly one that will result in real damage. Thus push come to shove, given a way to avoid a Brexit, the EU will take advantage of it.
We now appear to have hit the point we anticipated, that of a game of chicken. The pro-Brexit faction, despite having lost support in the UK population, has embraced a more and more hard-line position, and the peculiarities of the UK system has allowed one of their favorites, Boris Johnson, to become Prime Minister. Some hoped that the fabulously unprincipled Johnson might find a way to reverse himself and call for a face-saving extension down the road, but Johnson looks to be doing everything he can to commit himself to an October 31 departure. The press was agog at Johnson’s Cabinet purge, in which he ousted anyone who was soft on Brexit, and populated his team heavily with MPs from the Leave campaign, leading some to speculate that despite Johnson’s protestations otherwise, he was preparing for an early election. Another indicator: the Tories launched a “blitz” of election ads to test messages.
In a further gesture to show his commitment to leaving on October 31, Johnson said in his first speech to the House of Commons that he will not nominate an EU Commissioner. Express pointed out that that would make it difficult to obtain an extension. The term of the current Commission ends on October 31 and the UK would need to field a new EU Commissioner were it to remain in the EU beyond that date.
A defining characteristic of the Johnson Government is its mediocrity. From vlade:
What’s really staggering the the proportion of people who are totally incompetent and believe their own BS (Raab, Moggie, Patel, Leadsom..). I despair for the UK’s education system with Williamson being allowed anywhere near it.
Johnson, in his first speech as Prime Minister, promised the UK was leaving the EU, “no ifs or buts,” in 99 days with a new deal. He also promised economic unicorns that would make Labour blush for its grandiose patter about “safer streets and better education and fantastic new road and rail infrastructure…higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity we close the opportunity gap” without any specifics as to how to produce such miraculous improvements. Johnson did acknowledge that there was a “remote possibility” that there would be no deal, and so
…we will now accelerate the work of getting ready and the ports will be ready and the banks will be ready and the factories will be ready and business will be ready and the hospitals will be ready and our amazing food and farming sector will be ready and waiting to continue selling ever more not just here but around the world….
I imagine at least some of you in the UK saw Johnson speak, and I feel very sorry for you. I can’t recall ever reading a major address that had so much hot air and so little substance, and what substance there was was deeply wrongheaded. Let’s start with the fact that Sir Ivan Rogers said it would take the UK five to ten years to be ready to trade with the rest of the world on a free trade agreement basis, and pretty much everyone competent to opine has made a similar assessment, if anything tending to the ten year end of the spectrum. So where is this Johnsonian readiness to be found?
On the other side of the channel, EU officials who prefer to communicate in diplo-speak are resorting to sharper notes in their register to try to penetrate the fog around No. 10 and Parliament. You have to wonder if they are responding to the clangor out of a sense of duty, or to demonstrate to their colleagues and history that they did everything they could.
Entirely predictably, they swatted down Johnson’s happy talk. Michel Barnier’s remarks via a Times reporter:
Barnier rejects Johnson's plan as basis for talks in note to EU27 pic.twitter.com/Bu5qO24O4a
— Bruno Waterfield (@BrunoBrussels) July 25, 2019
Waterfield focused on Barnier’s intimating that a general election might be in store (the “many strong reactions….in the House of Commons”) and that Johnson’s no deal bluster was a gambit to split the EU. But at least as significant was Barnier’s reference to the mandate and his offer to remain the point person during the summer (“don’t worry about your holiday, I’ll let you know if there is anything you really need to hear about”).
By invoking the mandate, Barnier was reminding the EU national diplomats that there isn’t even remotely enough time to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement even if the EU was to have a massive change of heart. Barnier is saying that his hands are tied, that he couldn’t discuss a new deal with the UK unless and until the EU went back to square zero and gave him new marching orders. He’s almost certainly reminding them of this section of Article 50:
In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.
Various EU national leaders have backed Barnier’s and Juncker’s position, that the Withdrawal Agreement is the only deal possible given the givens. Barnier is alluding to the notion that in extremis, he could be told to try again, but that would mean having the European Council come up with new guidelines. Even with the addition of an early European Council meeting, no way can this get done by October 31.
Juncker also entirely predictably sent the same message. Notice how closely the language of Juncker’s nein parallels Barnier’s text. From the Guardian:
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has told Boris Johnson that the EU27 will not give in to his demand to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
On Thursday in his first telephone call with Johnson as prime minister, Juncker called the existing deal “the best and only agreement possible”…
Juncker said the EU would analyse any ideas put forward by the UK provided they were compatible with the withdrawal agreement, his spokeswoman Mina Andreeva tweeted in a readout of the phone call.
But a Commission spokeswoman, providing a brief summary of the Juncker-Johnson phone call, did not even try to put a positive spin on things. She made clear that Juncker expressed no willingness to budge a millimeter, let alone an imperial inch, on the Withdrawal Agreement, which Brussels has stated repeatedly is not open for renegotiation.
But most important is the one possible spot where the UK might be able to drive a chink that could influence the EU is holding firm. From the Irish Times:
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told Boris Johnson, the new British prime minister, that an entirely new Brexit deal “is not going to happen”.
He also said negotiating a new deal “within weeks or months” – with Mr Johnson saying he can leave the EU with a new deal by the next Brexit deadline on October 31st – is “not in the real world”.
The press also made much of the fact that Juncker gave Johnson his cell phone number. But Barnier and Juncker appear to have nominated themselves, even more so than usual, to run interference for other EU figures. Juncker seems to like press attention, so putting himself on BoJo’s speed dial will make him less of a lame duck.
Macron has agreed to meet with Johnson in August, while Macron’s spokesperson insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement was not up for discussion. This again is no surprise, given that Macron has been taking a hard line on Brexit.
One wonders how Johnson will fight off a general election. LibDem leader Jo Swinson has written Corbyn to call him out for “aiding and abetting this Conservative Brexit” and insisting he Do Something. On the one hand, despite his bold talk, Corbyn must recognize that Labour is likely to lose seats in a general election, making the noble gesture of ousting Johnson costly. A no confidence motion may fail for that reason, as well as for the fact that previous whip counts found that Tory rebels were outnumbered by Labour MPs who would not vote to derail Brexit.
Will Johnson book so many meetings on the Continent that he can create the impression that motion equals progress? Will the press play along with Johnson, as it did with Theresa May, messaging that a deal is nigh when it was pretty clear no such thing was happening? And even with the Brexit train bearing down on the UK, will party interest manage to keep the opposition from mustering enough votes to turf out Johnson?
Even though politics in the UK still retains the appearance of normalcy, it’s hard to think this false calm will hold once the summer is over. As several astute readers have said, the UK political order is suffering a breakdown. And the early phases of revolutions typically make things worse for ordinary people.