26 July 2019

The new Prime Minister and the EU have said they want to work constructively together – but Boris Johnson could face the same Brexit options as his predecessor, says Georgina Wright.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit pledges will not have come as a great surprise to the EU. He would prefer the UK to leave on 31 October with a deal, but he wants to remove the Irish backstop and is prepared to withhold the £39 billion so-called divorce bill if renegotiations with the EU fail. The EU27 are less than impressed. In a leaked memo to EU diplomats, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said that Johnson’s demands were “unacceptable” – but that the EU Commission stood ready to work “constructively” with the new Prime Minister to find a way forward.

The threat of no deal will not make the EU27 change their minds

Boris Johnson’s recent Cabinet appointments, along with a promise to ramp up no deal planning, leave no doubt that his government is more ready than its predecessor to contemplate a no deal Brexit. But that has not changed EU minds. The EU thinks it is better placed to weather a no deal than the UK, can support Ireland – which would be worst affected – and may see better UK preparations as helping both sides. If the Prime Minister is hoping this tactic will get the EU to blink then it is not having that effect – yet. 

The Prime Minister will need to gain the trust of EU leaders

If Boris Johnson is serious about leaving with a deal then he will need to gain the trust of the EU27. EU leaders, from France’s Emmanuel Macron to Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, were quick to congratulate Boris Johnson. Germany’s Angela Merkel is also reported to have invited him to Berlin for a visit in August. But in the eyes of many in the EU, he still carries a lot of referendum baggage. 

He may want to rethink whether what plays well to a domestic audience will help him achieve his negotiating goals –  if he really has them. He has, so far, adopted a combative style which runs counter to his offer to negotiate in a “in the spirit of friendship” –  Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, has warned that Boris Johnson had set the UK on "a collision course". The Prime Minister is currently travelling around the UK – but EU leaders will watch to see if his first overseas visit is a photo-op with Donald Trump or a substantive chat with one of them.

Renegotiation will require detailed proposals and convincing reassurances

The Prime Minister has said he wants to remove the Irish backstop but also prevent any checks along the Irish border – but he has yet to specify how he would achieve this. The EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has made clear that the EU stands ready to explore any British proposals so long as they were compatible with the demands of EU leaders. If the new Prime Minister is serious about renegotiation, then he will need to show he understands what has already been ruled out – and why. Ignoring previous conversations could lead to greater levels of frustration – and limit the EU’s appetite to meet the UK Government halfway.

He will also need to convince EU leaders that any concession can get the deal through Parliament – meaning he can succeed where Theresa May failed.

EU leaders are bracing themselves for an autumn crunch point

But few people in Brussels think a deal that they could accept can also pass the UK Cabinet and Parliament. The Prime Minister’s new energy in the UK is not matched among a weary EU27, who just want the Brexit saga over with so that they can get on with their other priorities. But they know that they face another autumn when Brexit will loom large. If Boris Johnson decides that the only way forward is to call a general election or a new referendum, then it could well drag on for even longer.