22 August 2019

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is in Paris today for talks with President Macron before attending the G7 Summit. In his first international trip since taking office, Johnson also met the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin yesterday. Earlier this week, Johnson made his opening bid in an attempt to negotiate a new Brexit deal, in a letter to the European Council President, Donald Tusk.

Johnson’s letter was significant in a number of ways, most notably for the way that it described the backstop as being ‘inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination’ outside the EU. Whereas his predecessor justified the backstop as a bridge towards the future relationship, Johnson sees it as limiting the options for the UK post-Brexit.

The other striking point about Johnson’s letter was his reference to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Rejecting the view that the backstop was necessary to protect the Agreement, Johnson instead argued that it ‘risks weakening the delicate balance embodied’ in the 1998 settlement.

To some, Johnson’s reading of the Agreement is flawed, reflecting an overly Unionist interpretation of Northern Ireland’s political settlement. However, given that any solutions for the Irish border have implications for the whole of the UK, Johnson is at least entitled to a hearing on this issue.

In the meantime, the EU continues to resist any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement.  There is no sign that the Irish Government will retreat from its position on the backstop with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, having invested too much in this policy at both the domestic and EU level to be seen to compromise at this stage. The European Commission’s response to Johnson expressed scepticism about whether alternatives to the backstop can be found. President Macron said that Johnson was asking the EU to ‘choose between the integrity of the single market and respecting the Good Friday Agreement,’ exactly the argument that Johnson is now challenging.

The point remains that a solution to the Irish border issue must be acceptable to the UK as well as the EU. Simply repeating that the backstop is the only workable solution overlooks this point. The Irish Government’s position seems to be that the logic behind the backstop will sustain them even in a No Deal scenario. The two sides are now polarised on this issue. Even if Parliament finds a way to stop – or at least delay – a No Deal outcome, the problem of getting a Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop through the House of Commons remains.

News in Brief

1. Boris Johnson’s international debut

The Prime Minister met the German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday and is in Paris for talks with President Emmanuel Macron today. He is also meeting other leaders, including US President Donald Trump, at the G7 summit this weekend.

2. Government planning assumptions for No Deal Brexit leaked

A Government dossier detailing planning assumptions for a No Deal Brexit was leaked to the Sunday Times at the weekend. According to the dossier, which is part of ‘Operation Yellowhammer,’ the Government’s assumptions for a No Deal Brexit include months of disruption to cross-Channel trade, medicine supplies, food supplies, and fuel distribution. The dossier also warned that the Government’s “no checks with limited exceptions” model for the Irish land border is “likely to prove unsustainable” in the long-run.

3. Political crisis in Rome

The populist coalition governing in Italy has officially ended as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte handed in his resignation on Tuesday. It is now up to the President, Sergio Mattarella, to see whether a snap general election should be triggered (probably in October), or if another government can be formed in order to avoid heading to the polls at a time when Italy needs to figure out its 2020 budget. The centre-left Democratic Party will hold consultations with the populist Five Star Movement about the possibility of striking a deal to form a caretaker government.

Open Europe in the media

“There could be a point where there is a lot of pressure on Ireland to reconsider and possibly look for compromise…but the domestic pressure on the Irish Taoiseach [Leo Varadkar] and pressure from EU capitals makes it difficult for him to [compromise] the last minute.” – Open Europe’s Stephen Booth told BBC Newsnight

Writing in the Telegraph, Pieter Cleppe argues, “The first week of September will be crucial. It should give an indication of the chances that Boris Johnson will still be Prime Minister by the end of October. The EU knows this; so do not expect any major concessions from them until the situation in Parliament becomes clear.”

Cleppe also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, “EU leaders are still hoping for new government asking for extension… but they could have a plan B ready” to shift the blame for No Deal to the UK, adding, “The obvious plan B is a time-limited backstop, as EU leaders don’t like the backstop much either… If the alternative is the UK crashing out, it will be a big problem for Ireland.”

“It’s a mistake to think that the impact of a No Deal Brexit means that Germany would cave to demands to scrap the backstop…  It’s been clear for some time that while Germany does not want a No Deal, they prioritise the integrity of the single market over trade with the UK.”- Dominic Walsh comments about Boris Johnson’s visit to Berlin on Euronews

Anna Nadibaidze told AFP that the message Johnson sends at the G7 summit will “be very significant,” adding that his meeting with US President Donald Trump and EU leaders will signal “where the UK wants to go forward after Brexit.”

In a piece for CapX, Nadibaidze writes about the possible consequences of the Italian political crisis both domestically and for the EU, arguing, “The populist government experiment in Italy may have failed, but for now the winners of this crisis are not clear either. It’s not that Italians are not used to political instability, but this time it could face a crisis on two fronts: At home and with Brussels.”