Boris Johnson’s first prime ministerial visit to Europe was his chance to test the EU’s willingness to change the Brexit deal. But both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron stood their ground. The French president and German chancellor made clear that they will only renegotiate if the UK government can come up with new proposals that protect the single market and prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland. With only 68 days left until Brexit, they have once again placed the ball firmly in the UK’s court.
While Macron and Merkel have different styles, on Brexit they have the same bottom line. Both said they would be open to further Brexit talks with the UK – but only with certain conditions. The first is that it is up to the UK government to come up with alternatives to the Irish border backstop. The second is more subtle: EU leaders want to make sure that any new Brexit deal is not dead on arrival back in London. Both are tricky asks.
Macron and Merkel’s responses fell short of the concession Johnson was hoping for. The Prime Minister wanted a promise to renegotiate and ditch the backstop. In the absence of such a commitment the pressure on the prime minister appears to be increasing. David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary and a member of the Conservative Party’s European Research Group, has already suggested that Johnson will need to do even more than remove the backstop from the withdrawal agreement if he is to secure the ERG’s support. EU leaders will take some convincing that Johnson can command the support of the UK Parliament.
These visits were also a chance for Johnson to get the leaders of the two largest EU countries to publicly back his Brexit vision. Again, Macron and Merkel held firm. Both stressed that any renegotiation would be led by the European Commission on behalf of member states; and that any final decision would need the approval of all 27 EU countries. Their message was simple: finding alternatives is only part of the struggle. The next challenge is to make sure they are acceptable to all.
Johnson left Berlin and Paris insisting that he would come up with new alternatives – and within the next 30 days. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the European Commission will continue to explore options.
Realistically, any new Brexit deal will require both sides to move – just how far will depend on what new plans the UK government is able to hatch. Johnson repeatedly referred to the 'alternative arrangements' which have previously been set out, but the reality is that these all require considerable work. Until firm proposals are on the table, there will be no appetite for the EU to reveal how far it is willing to go, although Macron and Merkel have cautioned against a complete overhaul of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Although Brexit dominated the two press conferences, Merkel, Macron and Johnson were clear that their talks were about more than what happens on 31 October. Merkel stressed the UK and Germany must continue to work together to address “a world in turmoil”. Meanwhile Macron, who is hosting the G7 Presidency in Biarritz, was keen to stress that both countries would continue to work together on Mali, Syria, Russia, promoting free education and combatting global diseases – irrespective of the Brexit outcome.
Macron and Merkel gave some encouragement for the prime minister’s cheerleaders to claim victory, but not enough to change the Brexit reality. The onus is now on the UK to find alternatives that the EU accepts and Parliament can pass. So far, nothing has changed: time is simply running out.