A “blistering timetable” indeed, as Boris Johnson observed, considering his Tories haven’t come up with a plan to leave the Irish border open for the past three years. The UK’s prime minister acknowledged as much in their joint remarks after meeting to discuss Brexit. Johnson had declared his intention to demand that the EU drop the backstop in order to negotiate a deal, but Merkel told Johnson to solve the border issue that the UK’s exit will create instead:
Angela Merkel has challenged Boris Johnson to come up with a solution to avert a no-deal Brexit “in the next 30 days”, putting responsibility for stopping the UK crashing out of the EU firmly at the British prime minister’s door.
After weeks of diplomatic tension, the German chancellor used her first face-to-face meeting with her UK counterpart on Wednesday to signal cautious optimism that a deal could be struck, suggesting that the backstop was “a placeholder that will no longer be necessary” if a solution to the impasse over the Irish border can be found.
Suggesting that changes to the political declaration could yet provide a way forward, Merkel said an agreement could take years, “but maybe we can find that solution in the next 30 days”.
Merkel got Johnson to admit that the problem was his to solve, but not on the need to provide the solution to replace the backstop:
Both leaders agreed the onus was on the UK to come up with a way to square Britain’s desire to leave the EU with the need to avert a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as set out in the Good Friday agreement.
Johnson took a slap at Theresa May in saying that the previous government may not have formally proposed some worthwhile potential solutions during previous negotiations. That seems highly unlikely; May desperately needed to get past the backstop issue and would have thrown the kitchen sink into the Withdrawal Agreement to make it palatable enough for Parliament to ratify it.
Merkel’s somewhat offhand offer of a 30-day window for Johnson to make a proposal that satisfies the EU on the Irish border didn’t change her overall position. Merkel made it clear that she backs the current EU position on the Withdrawal Agreement and won’t reopen negotiations on any other point than a proposed commitment to the open border in Ireland:
Mr. Johnson, speaking in Berlin, said he believed there was “ample scope to do a deal” once the backstop was removed. “If we can do that, then I’m absolutely certain we can move forward together,” he said.
Ms. Merkel on Tuesday said the EU would think about practical solutions about a post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU, but wouldn’t reopen the withdrawal agreement.
Asked Wednesday what such practical solutions would look like, she said she wanted to hear proposals from the U.K. for how it would deal with the border after Brexit. Once it becomes clearer what such a possible arrangement would look like, she said, the backstop as a placeholder would no longer be necessary.
French president Emmanuel Macron took a more blunt position after the meetings. He rejected Johnson’s ultimatum entirely and placed blame for any no-deal Brexit squarely on Johnson’s shoulders. Furthermore, Johnson should not count on the US bailing out the UK to mitigate the economic damage that will result:
“Can (the cost of a hard Brexit) be offset by the United States of America? No. And even if it were a strategic choice it would be at the cost of an historic vassalisation of Britain.”
“I don’t think this is what Boris Johnson wants. I don’t think it is what the British people want.”
That’s a shot at Donald Trump as well, who publicly encouraged Johnson to forge ahead with a no-deal Brexit by promising a new trade agreement with the US. Unfortunately, that would take long enough to where it wouldn’t help Johnson much in the short run. Furthermore, that might have complicated his efforts in Europe more than it helped, the New York Times suggests:
Mr. Johnson, who has stepped up preparations for the possibility of a potentially chaotic no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, needs the president’s help if he is to strike a trade deal with the United States to cushion the economic impact. But he can ill afford to appear too chummy with him.
“Johnson’s friendship with Trump and their joint admiration society is a liability for him with the Europeans,” said Julianne Smith, a former United States deputy national security adviser now with the Center for a New American Security, who recently finished a fellowship in Berlin.
“The closer he allies himself with Trump the more difficulty he’ll have going forward with the Europeans, from trade to security,” she said.
Trump’s pas de d’oh with Denmark today probably didn’t help matters much either.
Thus far, it looks like Johnson’s European tour has largely failed. He had hoped to push hard enough to move Merkel and Macron — the core of the EU — into reopening talks. Both of them made it crystal clear that they have no desire to do so. Merkel at least offered Johnson the option of replacing the backstop with a workable border solution before the crash-out date, but that option has existed all along. Johnson doesn’t have a solution to it without aligning either Northern Ireland with the EU’s custom union or the entire UK. The “technological solution” has been talked about for three years but has yet to be formed into a coherent and pragmatic system for frictionless border operations, even after three years of development.
Johnson’s going home empty-handed, and now Parliament might take matters into its own hands. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is already putting together a coalition to stop a no-deal Brexit, and potentially to stop Johnson from proroguing Parliament to achieve it. If he can attract dissident Tories to a coalition, Corbyn might succeed — but he’d probably have to promise not to seek the PM spot himself to do so. That might end up being an insurmountable hurdle itself, which would leave Parliament vulnerable to a BoJo bypass. That day of reckoning is rapidly approaching.