For all their fascination with Brexit, continental Europeans have no time for the nitty-gritty. Juncker and Barnier might be counting on a £39 billion ‘divorce payment’, but the average Parisian or Berliner doesn’t know what it’s about, beyond Boris’s hair.
That is changing. Since Johnson’s arrival the backstop has moved to the centre of Europe’s understanding of the process. Until now, continental Europeans understood the backstop in a formulaic, pro-EU way. The Milanese daily Corriere della Sera has a London correspondent, but it chose to focus on Dublin, to which the EU’s mission civilisatrice has thankfully brought ‘abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage’. Its correspondent asked the essayist Fintan O’Toole about the border’s devilish complexity: ‘There are 280 almost invisible border crossings between Ireland and the North,’ O’Toole explained. ‘What will happen if we don’t find an acceptable solution?’ One might respond that, if the crossings are ‘almost invisible’, there won’t be much to solve, since there’s not likely to be much movement of people or goods through them.
Johnson had an even better tack. In his first Westminster address he reframed what the backstop was: ‘No country that values its independence and, indeed, its self-respect could agree to a treaty that signed away our economic independence and self-government, as this backstop does.’ Self-respect is exactly right. The backstop is not the only problem with the withdrawal agreement, but to foreigners, it was the part that stuck out like a sore thumb. How could any country agree to that? It was more than a concession. It was a humiliation. It required Britain to surrender political control over parts of its territory in ways it could not recover — ever — unless the EU gave permission. It left Britain with less sovereignty than it had before it voted for independence.