July 25, 2019
What should the EU do now?
It is no secret that Boris Johnson is held in contempt by the chancelleries of Europe. But, whatever EU leaders think of him personally, they will soon be confronted with a formal request to re-open negotiations on the withdrawal treaty.
EU unity has held up extraordinarily well during the entire Brexit negotiations, but this is because the EU was confronted by a weak negotiator. Olly Robbins gave the game away when he said that either the Commons would vote for the treaty, or Brexit would be postponed for a long time. From the EU’s perspective, this was a game of head-I-win, tails-you-lose.
But, when confronted with a partner willing to accept a no-deal Brexit, the situation changes. The EU will need to consider, for the first time in earnest, the political dynamics in the European Council in the days and hours before a no-deal Brexit. Are they really prepared for it as they say? Politically and technically?
We don’t think so. The German media has spent the last two years in denial that Brexit is happening, focusing much of its reporting on the second-referendum campaign. Lately they switched to portraying Johnson as a buffoon or, in the case of Spiegel, as a madman. But what will happen once they realise that Germany is about to face tariffs in the two largest export markets for its cars, the US and the UK? We think that complacency will turn to panic overnight, as it so often does in European politics. The EU will need a strategy to deal with the Johnson administration. EU leaders will need to explore among themselves how far they will go in opening up the discussion on the Irish backstop. And they will need a no-deal strategy that goes beyond the regulatory preparations of the European Commission.
The same applies to the other side. We agree with Ambrose Evans Pritchard, who warned Johnson to heed the mistakes of Alexis Tsipras and of Theresa May: you cannot bluff your way through Brussels. The EU will not be impressed by a threat to withhold the €44bn. But the EU would care about a no-deal Brexit that would bind the UK politically, commercially, and technologically closer to the US. Evans-Pritchard is right in his conclusion that Johnson will need to send out very clear signals of his intentions, and not to oscillate between defiance and submission.