Brussels’ doubts: EU insiders on the ‘almost impossible’ task facing the next PM

Posted On: 
28th June 2019

With the deadline of 31st October looming, EU officials are keeping a close eye on the race to become the next UK prime minister. While taking some of the campaign pledges with a pinch of salt, Brussels sources fear that the most likely outcome is now a no deal exit. But is there any room for manoeuvre? Sebastian Whale reports from the Belgian capital

An EU official says there is a 60-70 per cent chance of a no deal Brexit
Credit: 
Anastasia Zawierucha | @anastasiazaw

Brussels is on a Brexit hiatus, but the latest musings from a floppy-haired old Etonian still reach the cobbled streets of the Belgian capital. Hundreds of miles away, Boris Johnson has just said that he would take Britain out of the EU on the 31st October “come what may, do or die”.

While both wannabe prime ministers have pledged to renegotiate the backstop element of the Withdrawal Agreement, Jeremy Hunt, an old Carthusian, has not ruled out seeking another extension of Article 50 if a deal is in the offing. Seeking to capitalise, Johnson called on his opponent to match his 31 October commitment.

Officials in the European Union, who are currently preoccupied with crucial internal elections, have largely been keeping their powder dry. They recognise that the Tory candidates are appealing to their party base and consider their Brexit pledges accordingly. One EU official quips that they would not have time to respond to the “sheer number of mistruths and contradictory statements” emanating from the debate.

As for Johnson’s rhetoric, some sources are sceptical. “Boris won’t go for no deal,” said one official prior to the TalkRadio interview in which Johnson made his “do or die” pledge. “It is not in his interest to do so, and he is guided by self-interest.”

But Johnson’s apparent cast-iron commitment to leaving on Halloween has pricked ears. One EU diplomat says it calls into question whether there is any “real intent” to reach an agreement. “That influences our thinking as to whether we should even enter into a debate,” they add.

Some in Brussels have made the same calculation as the editor of the Evening Standard; that Johnson would pivot towards his former London mayoral self if he gets the keys to Number 10. Others are keen to warn against complacency. “Boris has often said one thing and then changed it to another – he has been many Borises in his life. Do we believe him? Well, we have no other option than to do that,” an EU diplomat says.

One thing that is true of all the people I speak to in Brussels; they are highly doubtful that an agreement can be reached within the current timetable. The new PM will be announced on Tuesday 23 July, two days before the summer recess. Parliament is scheduled to return briefly in September before MPs depart for the party conference season. Blink and we will be in October.

“It’s almost impossible now for the UK to leave on the 31st October with a deal, given parliamentary procedures and everything. Even with all the will in the world, to leave with a deal we’re looking at a really, really tight timetable,” an EU official says. “It’s not perhaps the wisest thing to pick a date and say that’s absolutely the date that we’re leaving.”

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Johnson and Hunt’s Brexit strategies overlap on the need to change the backstop. Both also say they would be willing to leave the EU without a deal.

The backstop is the mechanism proposed by the UK for avoiding a hard border in Ireland – which has proven to be the most controversial element of the Withdrawal Agreement. It would see the UK maintain regulatory alignment and involve a temporary single customs territory if talks over the future relationship collapse. Brexiteers see it as a means for locking Britain into the EU and have pushed for it to be removed from the deal altogether.  

Johnson’s plans are three-pronged. Plan A would see a new withdrawal agreement (Johnson seemingly wants to keep his favoured elements of the original deal) with a commitment to finding technical solutions on the Irish border. The £39bn divorce bill would also be made conditional on progress in trade talks. Hunt too wants to seek alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop, which would require reopening or securing a new Brexit deal, and argues he has a greater chance of succeeding than his opponent. He has pledged to have representatives from the DUP, the ERG and the Scottish and Welsh Tories in his new look negotiating team.

However, the EU has categorically ruled out revisiting the Withdrawal Agreement. “We will wait and see until we meet the Prime Minister what the UK’s positions are. The one big thing that keeps coming up is the renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement which we have said we will not do,” an EU official says. “The synonyms that are being used such as disaggregation or whatever are the same. We’re simply not going to do that.”

Multiple sources say the EU is willing to amend the attached 26-page political declaration, which sketches out the future relationship, should the UK relax some of its red lines. “There is a willingness to move on the political declaration and have some additional wording... Then it’s up to them if they want to sell it,” says one.

A UK diplomatic source says that the EU’s intransigent position is the same in private as it is in public, and officials have shown little room for flexibility.

A wider point to consider is which candidate Brussels would help if officials were willing to do so. One EU official comments: “Concessions have already been made, why would the EU give Boris more? He is the architect of Brexit and represents a populist movement. You’ve got to remember; each member state has their own ‘Brexit Party’ to deal with.”

If and when Johnson’s Plan A is rejected, he has floated invoking Article XXIV (24) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – the treaty that underpins the World Trade Organisation. He argues that doing so would preserve existing trading arrangements with the EU beyond the 31 October deadline while the future arrangements are thrashed out.

But trade law experts have dismissed the idea that GATT24 would be applicable. Bank of England governor Mark Carney and Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, are among those to point out that the article only applies if you have an agreement in place. “There is not a single chance of that happening,” one senior EU official says. “It is not possible to do a GATT 24 transition period. It’s just not going to happen.”

Johnson’s Plan C would see Britain leave with no deal. Hunt has said he too would walk away as a “last resort”, believing the “democratic damage” of ignoring the referendum result would outweigh the risks.

One EU diplomat urges whoever becomes PM to consult party whips about what is needed to get a deal over the line (so far, the Commons has only supported the Brady amendment, which called for alternative arrangements to the Irish border question). Then the future PM should head to European capitals including Dublin, Madrid, Paris and Berlin before securing support for the strategy at Conservative party conference.

Learning from the experience with Theresa May, the diplomat adds: “Here there is a fear that whatever they agree with the new Prime Minister beforehand is torn up in the party conference and then we have nothing.”

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Elmar Brok is in his last week as a Member of the European Parliament, a position he has held for nearly four decades, when we meet on a Tuesday morning. We head to a restaurant on the bottom floor of the parliament building. The 73-year-old German politician, sporting a moustache, orders himself a croque monsieur.

Brok, a member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), is a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has known Johnson personally for 25 years. “I have fun with him. We’ve had many cigars and whisky in our lives together.”

As Brok dabs ketchup on his sandwich, I ask what he thinks of Johnson’s bid to be PM. “Fun,” he replies dryly. “He will win. It would be a big surprise if that did not happen.”

Does he think Johnson would make a good prime minister? “As someone who was a journalist here, who was not very often very close to the truth when he was at the Daily Telegraph, when he invented stories – he has not changed. It’s fun to talk to him – it’s really fun to talk to him, intellectual fun. But to run a country?”

He notes that Johnson wrote two articles, one in favour of Remain and the other Brexit, before declaring for Leave in 2016. “That explains everything,” he muses.

For Brok, who sat on the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (led by Guy Verhofstadt, the team was briefed by Michel Barnier during the negotiations) Brexit is an “Eton boys’ game” and a “purely English question”. “Scotland and Northern Ireland are very clear for Europe. This is the problem,” he says.

Brok believes Johnson is prepared to go for a no deal Brexit – an outcome he says would be difficult for all but “ten times harder for Britain than for us”.

“Many people believe that England is a world power… what is Britain alone compared to the United States, China, Russia or India? It is an island in the northern Sea. I would say the same thing about Germany, but Germany is bigger and economically more successful,” he says. “We will see. In a few years’ time, Britain will be back.”

You think so, I ask. “Yes. At least in ten years’ time, [they will] ask for membership.”

Brok says he put more effort into relationships with Britain than any other country during his career. His affinity to the UK goes back to 1969 when he spent a year at Edinburgh University. He once had an office at CCHQ and is close friends with Tories such as Ken Clarke. The CDU used to be partnered with the Tories in the European Parliament and "now these people behave like enemies,” he laments.

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While only Hunt has left the door open to an extension, thoughts in the EU have begun to turn towards the possibility of a further delay. “There is some hardening against extension,” says an official. “It is a fringe view, but some people think no deal is necessary,” they add, arguing some believe it would be a “jolt” for the UK.

Just one of the 27 other EU member states would have to reject an extension for it to fall through, though that country would bear some responsibility for causing a no deal Brexit (which would have implications for most if not all countries involved). But the EU will begin a new cycle on 1st November, with Messrs Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk among those to be replaced. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is currently vying to become the next European Commission president. The EU, therefore, has other fish to fry.

However, a no deal Brexit would not only carry economic implications but also questions over the Irish border. Johnson has insisted the UK would not impose border checks under such a scenario, and the Daily Telegraph reported that the Republic of Ireland was facing calls from some member states to set out how it will manage a WTO exit.

Asked about the prospect of the EU27 agreeing to an extension, a senior EU official replies: “Don’t expect it to be an easy agreement.” Emmanuel Macron was the loudest voice in favour of a shorter extension back in April when EU leaders agreed to a delay. The Dutch are now among those considered to be “hardening”.

An EU diplomat says: “Extension on this end is very, very difficult. The discussion in April was a lot more complicated than has been reported. Our feeling is that the door on an extension is not shut but is certainly ajar and is a thick and heavy door to push out again, and without political events, be it an election or a referendum, I doubt that those that want to extend can push that door open again.”

An EU official also says Brussels could seek to attach political conditions to an extension. “There could be some grandstanding around the UK choosing a referendum, revoke or leave,” they add.

Brok argues you can “forget” the idea that a new arrangement can be negotiated within the current time frame. “You will have to ask for an extension and Boris will not do that.” Other EU sources are unsure whether parliament would have the means to block leaving empty handed on 31 October.

While Johnson has claimed the odds of a no deal Brexit are a “million-to-one against”, an EU official is less sanguine, saying there is now a “60, 70” per cent chance of the UK exiting without an agreement.

The characters may be different, but the sticking points are still the same. The European Union refuses to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement; the candidates for PM all say that is what they hope to achieve.

But with Johnson the favourite, the UK could have a prime minister willing to leave the European Union without an agreement in place. And with the frontrunner setting himself a personal deadline, people in Brussels are starting to believe no deal Brexit is the most probable outcome.

“We all still want a deal but given the rhetoric and given what is coming out of the candidates at the moment, we are sceptical that we might get there,” an EU diplomat says.

Both the Hunt and Johnson campaigns were approached for comment.