The threat of an exit without agreement from the European Union still weighs on the United Kingdom which refuses the Irish “safety net” wanted by Brussels. The President of the British Conservative Party in Paris Jeremy Stubbs analyzes the strategy of Boris Johnson which, according to him, is not so bad as it is said.
Jeremy Stubbs is President of the British Conservative Party in Paris and an affiliated professor at ESCE International Business School in Paris.
What is Boris Johnson’s strategy? How are his actions as Prime Minister so far, and in particular his recent visits to Berlin and Paris, the logical implementation of any strategy? The question is legitimate. Because these visits have only given rise to agreed exchanges of agreeableness and reaffirmations of well-defined previous positions.
Johnson is preparing the game of reproach: in case of exit without an agreement, he will be able to say that it is the fault of the European leaders who will have remained deaf to his proposals, which will appeal to his voters.
Wasted effort? The answer circulating in a large number of media with a certain psittacism is that Boris Johnson is preparing the game of reproach: in case of exit without an agreement, he can say that it is the fault of the European leaders who will remain deaf to his proposals, which will greatly appeal to his constituents. In reality, he does not need a chancelleries tour to make his supporters aware of a possible European “perfidy”. Sometimes, to understand what a person is looking for, just listen to it. Boris Johnson began each visit by saying that, although ready to see the United Kingdom leave the EU on October 31 without an agreement, he believes that an agreement is not only possible but preferable. It’s a lot and a little at a time. Many because it is his true position, and little because, for now, these words can not be followed by deeds.
- The funny war
We know the new tenant at 10 Downing Street wants to take a tougher approach than Theresa May. If it is a fight that is getting ready – on a purely metaphorical level, of course – the summer period we are going through is not so much the opening of hostilities as a strange war. European leaders know that when the Westminster Parliament meets again in September, Boris Johnson’s government will face a vote of no confidence. If he survives, Mr. Johnson will be a serious interlocutor; otherwise, the cards will be fully reborn across the Channel. What is the point of changing positions now with a government that may not be here in the fall? When Mrs. Merkel, playing the “good cop”, relatively speaking, seems to grant Boris Johnson 30 days to find an alternative to the “safety net” Irish, it’s a way to make an appointment after the trials of the season – or not. For its part, the Prime Minister can not yet make concrete proposals for alternatives to the “backstop”: what good, since they will not receive any consideration for the moment from the Europeans? When Mr. Macron, playing the “bad cop,” kicks off the idea of reopening the withdrawal agreement, this is a way of signaling that Mr. Johnson will not be listened to as long as he does not bring the certainty of having the London Parliament behind him. So there is only one question left: Boris Johnson has managed to give his continental counterparts a taste of his good faith.
- The art of the deal
In negotiations, what matters most to the European Union is its single market.
One of the key priorities in a negotiation – I know this because I teach this subject – is to sound out the motives of the other party. What matters to him the most? What is she afraid of? Let’s ask these questions about the EU. What does she want to protect, no matter what? What is the source from which it draws its strength? It’s not his army; she does not have any. This is not his motto; the fate of the euro seems perpetually in the balance. It is not his idea of unity and peace; Nations forget very quickly such abstractions when it suits them. It’s a single market. The status of the EU as the largest market on the planet, the reputation of the EU as a formidable trade negotiator, depend on the single market. The treaties with Korea, with Japan, Ceta, the one – not yet ratified – with Mercosur, the customs union with Turkey, the trade surplus with the United States that irritates Mr. Trump so much … here are the donations magical talisman that represents the single market. Even the famous power of the Eurocrats, whose denunciation constitutes the business of populist-nationalists, depends largely on the rules and norms imposed by the treaties to which the member States have subscribed.
Again, just listen to what the other says: when Brussels claims that eliminating the backstop would be highly problematic, it’s because an uncontrolled border in Ireland would be an Achilles heel for the single market. Theresa May had understood this by inventing this device, she had even understood it too well since she had forgotten the probable attitude of the ultimate decision-makers in her country’s parliament. Many others on the British side did not understand it. They think that the backstop is just a means of pressure for the EU or a weapon to punish the UK. They did not understand that the defense of the single market is paramount, that the EU will go all the way to protect it. All exports of Audi and BMW cars from Germany to the United Kingdom will not change anything. Nonchalantly evoking vague alternatives to the backstop does not reassure Europeans: on the contrary, it exasperates them to the highest degree. Boris Johnson will have to show that he too understood.
- Stop the backstop
The famous backstop is the measure of keeping the UK indefinitely in a customs union with the EU if the negotiation of a trade agreement between the two partners does not lead to a satisfactory solution. It aims to guarantee three elements: the integrity of the single market, the absence of a hard border between the two Irish political entities and – which is often forgotten – the preservation of the status of Northern Ireland within the union with Great Britain. In the first months of this year, when Madame May was still hoping to have a recalcitrant Parliament vote for the withdrawal agreement, everything revolved around the mechanism of exit of this indefinite duration device. Today, Boris Johnson’s policy is based on research, no longer an exit mechanism, but an alternative. Extremism? A spontaneous desire for a “hard” Brexit? This is the attitude wrongly attributed to the British leader on the continent.
- The Johnsonian logic
If the London mistake is to underestimate the single market, the mistake of Brussels would be to confuse Johnson with Farage.
The only parliamentary vote approving the withdrawal agreement, that of 29 January 2019, provided for “alternative arrangements” in the backstop. Johnson has drawn the inevitable conclusion: only an agreement without backstop will pass across the Channel. His logic does not stop there. Apart from the British acceptance of an agreement with the backstop before 31 October, what is the other option proposed by the EU? The request for a new extension to organize a second referendum or elections. Mr. Johnson knows that this second solution has three serious flaws: the resulting situation will not necessarily be different from the current one; the apparent imposition of a vote by a foreign body will harden opposition to the EU; a delay with multiple uncertainties will have negative consequences on both sides of the Channel. Thus, the only real option left is to force both parties to find a pragmatic solution to the border issue – with the threat of a “no-deal” to focus minds. Europeans still dream of seeing a clone of Tony Blair appear one day across the Channel, canceling Brexit. They are more likely to face Nigel Farage, an authentic ultra. If the London mistake is to underestimate the single market, the mistake of Brussels would be to confuse Johnson with Farage. On the British side, we have not stopped working on alternatives to the backstop. It is a question of creating a true Cubist collage of superimposed disparate measurements, including, for example, control zones far from the borders and a system of approved traders. Did BoJo find the magic potion? We will not know until September 12th – if he’s still here, which seems likely. From then on, he will have to convince the Europeans that he understands the importance of the single market and that it is better to assemble the cubist collage before October 31, rather than after. Boris Johnson put, not on the game of reproaches, but a work of rapprochement.