To be fair, blame the Germans has proven to be a solid political strategy regarding European affairs for quite a while, and not for no reason. It’s nearly as popular in the UK, historically speaking, as blame the French. And Leo Varadkar might be happy that Boris Johnson isn’t blaming Ireland for the no-deal Brexit everyone knows is coming.
But even as much as everyone likes to blame the Germans, this looks like a stretch:
An anonymous official in Boris Johnson’s office told broadcast reporters on Tuesday that negotiations with European leaders over Brexit were “essentially impossible” after the British prime minister concluded a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. …
An anonymous source in Johnson’s office briefed British broadcasters about a morning call between Johnson and Merkel, asserting that the Europeans would not budge an inch.
“It was a very useful and clarifying moment in all sorts of ways,” the British official was quoted as saying. “If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever.”
Narrator: It doesn’t represent a new established position. In fact, what Merkel appeared to say today was what the EU has said for the past three years, but 10 Downing is spinning it as something new:
“Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the E.U., they could do it, no problem. But the U.K. cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever,” the British source was quoted as saying.
This has been the backstop position all along. The EU is willing to negotiate a Brexit but only if the UK can solve the problem it has created with Brexit. The backstop — having Northern Ireland in the customs and regulatory union or all of the UK — would last as long as it takes the UK to solve the problem that backstop temporarily resolves.
This is the problem: The UK committed to a frictionless border in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which was easy to establish when both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were both in the EU. Brexit from the EU on the UK’s terms would require border checks to enforce the two different customs and regulatory regimes that would exist by the UK’s design on the island. Those don’t just apply to trade, but also to immigration, over which the UK also wants to regain its sovereignty through Brexit. It is therefore incumbent on the UK to come up with a solution that allows them to comply with the Good Friday Agreement, a point which Johnson himself has acknowledged.
Essentially, Merkel told Johnson that his latest proposal — which envisions border checks, even if located elsewhere than the physical border — doesn’t solve the problem. That would require the backstop to remain in place until the UK comes up with a plan that actually does resolve the conflict between the GFA and Brexit. If that means the backstop would remain in place “forever,” as this leak claims, it only points up the painfully obvious-by-now fact that Johnson really has no idea at all how to solve the problem.
That’s not Angela Merkel’s fault. It’s a flaw in the original design of Brexit, one which the Tories have tried to ignore or downplay ever since.
In response, the EU told Johnson to grow up:
The European Union accused Britain of playing a “stupid blame game” over Brexit on Tuesday after a Downing Street source said a deal was essentially impossible because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands. …
“Boris Johnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” European Council President Tusk said on Twitter. “At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?”
Such abrupt remarks indicate the Brexit blame game has begun in earnest, and that now both London and European capitals are preparing for an acrimonious and potentially chaotic Brexit for which neither side wants to be held responsible.
This does smell like end-game spin, but especially in the UK. Johnson may have hoped that the EU was desperate enough to avoid the damage from a no-deal Brexit that they’d glumly accept his ultimatum. The EU, however, has committed to Ireland that they will protect the GFA and the open border on the island. Plus, it’s in their interest to make sure that the checks necessary once the UK goes its own way on trade deals are firmly in place rather than scattered in warehouses throughout not just the Six Counties but also throughout Ireland too — and Varadkar doesn’t want to get stuck holding the bag for being the UK’s customs enforcer.
The no-deal Brexit is upon us now. The only thing left to see is who gets the blame for the damage that will follow, and whether Northern Ireland decides to enforce another clause of the GFA by holding a referendum on reunification — which would solve the whole problem by pushing the border into the Irish Sea.