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Boris Johnson Plays a Shameless Game With Merkel

Lionel Laurent

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Anyone clinging to the vain hope that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is willingly prepared to soften his Brexit stance with a deal that’s acceptable to all sides got a dose of reality on Tuesday.

After a detailed list of predictable objections from the European Union to Britain’s proposed alternative to the Irish border “backstop” (a guarantee to avoid a hard border in Ireland) the Downing Street blame machine went into overdrive, with unnamed sources bashing intransigence in Brussels and EU capitals.

On Monday night there was a slightly hysterical 800-word text message to the Spectator magazine saying the talks were certain to crash; then a read-out from Johnson’s telephone call with Germany’s Angela Merkel on Tuesday morning, which the U.K. said signaled a Brexit deal was impossible. Beyond the shrill efforts of Johnson and his advisers to pin the guilt on other parties, nothing concrete has changed. The EU position remains much as it was before.

But we have learned a few things.

First, Johnson clearly believes that the more the objections to his plan pile up in the EU, the greater his chance of winning an imminent general election at home. It doesn’t matter that the Brussels position has always been consistent: to respect the promises made by both sides on Northern Ireland to safeguard peace and the integrity of Europe’s single market. Nor does it matter that any serious analysis of Johnson’s “two borders for four years” proposals (with a regulatory border in the Irish Sea and a customs border on the Irish mainland) would immediately identify its impossibilities. The British response to Brussels’s reasonable doubts is pure electioneering. 

The No. 10 source cited in the Spectator made an explicit link between the Johnson deal being rejected and how the Conservative Party would campaign to see off the threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. The source boasted too that “over half” of the British electorate would agree the EU was at fault (although one poll suggests they would also blame Johnson).

Second, there is a recurring fantasy among pro-Brexit politicians that the way to get around Brussels is by pressuring individual countries. The assertion by Downing Street sources that Merkel, hardly known for changing EU policy on the hoof, unilaterally demanded that Northern Ireland stay inside the EU’s customs union “forever” was unconvincing in its details. But as an indication of Merkel’s unwillingness to sacrifice Dublin’s interests or EU unity to avoid a no-deal Brexit, her exchange with Johnson was instructive. 

It is likely that Merkel simply refused to budge on the backstop and that this is being spun by Johnson’s team as aggression on her part to fire up nationalistic U.K. voters — a dangerous road to travel.

Third, Johnson’s willingness to try to sabotage the EU from within if he doesn’t get his way is becoming more apparent. Until now, Britain has stuck by commitments not to put sand in the gears of EU process. But officials in Brussels aren’t blind to the prospect of a more hostile strategy, including open alliance with anti-EU parties and politicians across the region. With Johnson’s excitable adviser Dominic Cummings calling the shots in London, anything’s possible.

Does all of this put paid to the chances of an agreed deal at next week’s EU summit? Almost certainly, though the EU notes that technical talks are continuing.

It’s important to note that the salient facts haven’t changed: Johnson says he’ll respect a law passed by Parliament that forces him to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline; many EU capitals have said they’ll accept such a request if it comes with a reason such as a U.K. election; and both sides say a deal is better than Britain crashing out with no safety net. Talk is cheap, anonymous briefings are even cheaper, but the cost of a no-deal Brexit remains exceptionally high for everyone concerned.

To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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