What is Boris Johnson doing in Germany and France?

2019-08-22 15:20
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Geoffroy van der Hasselt, AFP)

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Geoffroy van der Hasselt, AFP)

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There were cries of "Stop Brexit" from the crowd gathered in Berlin on Wednesday afternoon, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and sat awkwardly as the band selected for the occasion struck up the two nations' anthems.

Ever the optimist, Johnson is ostensibly in town to convince the Germans not only to abandon their long-held position on the manner of Britain's departure from the European Union, breaking with the solidarity of the other 26 members, but to then work to convince those other nations to come into line with Britain's vision of the future.

That vision, it is fair to say, hasn't been spectacularly forthcoming - which Johnson admitted at a joint press conference.

"If we approach this with sufficient patience and optimism, then we can get this done," said Johnson, adding "it is in the final furlong generally when the horses change places and the winning deal appears".

If Johnson fails to win Merkel over, he will have another go on Thursday, as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron on much the same mission.

The backstop

At the heart of the problem is what is known as the Irish "backstop". It's a contingency plan in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the administration of Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, to avoid any hard border being drawn up again on the island of Ireland.

It states that Northern Ireland should remain in regulatory alignment - following established standards for health, safety, food and so forth - with the EU until another solution becomes apparent.

This has proven unpopular, as it means that either the rest of the UK must also remain in alignment with the EU, therefore being bound to it without any say in it, or Northern Ireland will be set aside from the rest of the UK, being treated much like the Republic of Ireland, which critics say is a loss of the UK's national sovereignty, a step towards Irish reunification, and therefore politically unacceptable.

But sharing Johnson's spirit of optimism, Merkel on Wednesday suggested there may be some flexibility in the EU's approach.

"The backstop has always been a fall-back option until this issue is solved, and one knows how one wants to do that," Merkel said.

"It was said we will probably find a solution in two years. But we could also find one in the next 30 days. Why not?"

European solidarity

So if the problem is with the UK's border with Ireland, why is Johnson going to Germany and France?

"Ireland and the UK cannot negotiate," said Jennifer Cassidy, a former Irish diplomatic attache to the EU. "The UK has to negotiate with the European Union."

But Johnson is not in Brussels, as he has refused to meet EU leaders as a group until the backstop is dropped. Merkel and Macron are not "the EU".

"It's kind of ironic, after hearing that the main reason for wanting to leave the EU was that the UK did not want to bow to France and Germany - which was never the case, though they are powerful actors - and it is now as clear as the sun that Johnson's first port of call is to go and bow to France and Germany," Cassidy told Al Jazeera.

"His aim is to divide and conquer, a classic strategy of the UK, but I personally don't think it's going to work."

Alistair Jones, associate professor in De Montford University's department of politics, says Johnson will not be able to drive a wedge between Europe's major players.

"However, from a more cynical perspective, he will return to the UK and have some one else to blame for Britain crashing out of the EU," he told Al Jazeera. "The nasty foreigners refused to budge, despite him asking nicely. It's part of his 'positive' agenda; if we all rally round and muck in, we can overcome anything.

"The whole thing is a charade by Johnson, to bolster his own position and the narrative, in advance of a general election, should he lose a vote of no confidence next month."

On Monday, Johnson - who rose to office with support from 0.24% of Britain's population - wrote to European Council president Donald Tusk, saying the backstop was "undemocratic", and asking that it be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement. He did not, however, propose any alternatives, only suggesting the backstop be replaced with a loose "commitment" to sort out "alternative arrangements" by the end of a post-Brexit transition period.

Tusk immediately rejected the letter. "The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found," he tweeted. "Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it."

The EU position is that the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands is the best and only deal on offer, having been negotiated and finalised with May's government. But Mark Shanahan, professor of politics at the University of Reading, said Johnson's strategy was to act as if the past three years hadn't happened.

"He is approaching the EU in a very British way: saying nothing new but talking very loudly as if his Etonian enunciation will make all the difference," he told Al Jazeera.

"The Irish, especially in the person of [Taoiseach / Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar, aren't impressed by his boosterism. They've heard it all before and now definitely hold all the best cards in this particular game of poker.

"Is his trip to Germany actually to have a meaningful discussion or just to show the British tabloids that he’s being busy? I would suggest the latter."

Blame-shifting

Berlin has repeatedly stated that the deal will not be reopened, and that German industries are ready for the effects of a "no-deal" Brexit, which many economists agree would be bad for many EU economies, but disastrous for the UK.

"The visit to Germany is for domestic consumption rather than any real expectation that Germany would back down," said Michele Chang, professor of European politics at the College of Europe in Bruges.

"The Leave campaign had previously argued that Germany would not allow the UK to leave without a deal because they import so many cars from Germany, so he would want to be seen as at least engaging with Germany now. The UK - politicians included - have not demonstrated a strong grasp of the EU in general."

Shanahan agrees: "There is a large exercise in blame-shifting going on, and if Johnson can shift the narrative so that it suggests he's a willing dealmaker, he can blame the EU and its totemic German heart when it all goes wrong and the UK launches into the no-deal abyss."

Ahead of their Thursday meeting, Macron reiterated that Johnson's proposal was a non-starter, saying that renegotiation of the deal was "not an option", and that the EU would not accept the blame for Britain crashing out.

"It will be the responsibility of the British government, always, because firstly it was the British people that decided Brexit, and the British government has the possibility up to the last second to revoke Article 50," he said.

Article 50 is the legal mechanism used to withdraw from the EU, and was triggered by Britain in March 2017. It has a two-year deadline, but the UK was granted an extension after May failed repeatedly to win approval for the exit deal in the UK parliament.

Reaching the summit

The meetings with Merkel and Macron are Johnson's first test of statesmanship as he embarks on his prime ministerial stewardship. This weekend's G7 summit in France marks one month since Johnson took office, and all eyes will be on his approach to dealing with global powers having cast Britain adrift from the world's largest trading bloc.

With a working parliamentary majority of just one MP, Johnson is desperate for a win at the summit to shore up domestic support. A post-Brexit trade deal with the United States is seen as key to Johnson's future in power. Luckily, he and US President Donald Trump are already allies.

"I share expectations that the gushing presidential support for Johnson to date will be solidified with numerous pronouncements from President Trump, with some pointed references that a hard Brexit is brilliant and just what the sulky continentals deserve," said Tim Kane, a Republican economist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

"The American voter isn't following UK politics and cannot fathom the Brexit turmoil, so the G7 summit in our eyes will be Boris's introduction, and a defining moment."

But there is something of an imbalance between the US, the world's superpower, and Britain, where a couple of inches of snow shuts down half the country's transport infrastructure. Macron told reporters on Wednesday a US trade deal would represent an "historic vassalisation" of the UK.

"The US can afford to be a realist," said Cassidy, now a lecturer in politics at Oxford University. "They pull out of the Iran deal, for example, and, other than some light condemnation from other countries, they can get their own way.

"Britain could once do what it wanted, too, but this is the 11th hour, where the mindset of empire is going to be removed. The EU is not going to blink."

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Read more on:    boris johnson  |  europe  |  brexit
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