While Johnson plays games, the EU is preparing for life without us | Rafael Behr

The Guardian Politics 1 month ago

In a normal game of poker, a bluff cannot continue once it is called. But for Boris Johnson an exposed bluff can just be re-bluffed. The stakes get higher even when the poor hand lies open on the table.

Before entering Downing Street, Johnson claimed that deficiencies in Theresa May’s Brexit deal were caused by failure of nerve, not weakness in the UK’s position. The theory was that Brussels needed to see kamikaze intent in British eyes: total commitment to quitting the bloc with no deal. Only then would the cowardly continentals yield. It is true that the EU wants a deal, because of the harm that Brexit without one would do. But the harm is asymmetric. In a no-deal scenario, the UK suffers more and, after a period of gratuitous pain, returns to negotiations with diminished leverage. It was never a real bluff because the economic cards were dealt face up.

Johnson’s posturing has not been without result. It has drained meagre stores of goodwill and increased eagerness to see the exit door swing shut behind Britain. That is bad news for remainers. The Brussels caravan is moving on. The European parliament opened confirmation hearings for Ursula von der Leyen’s commission this week, and there is no British nominee. In December the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, replaces the great anglophile Donald Tusk as president of the European council. The dynamics of EU summitry are shifting. Angela Merkel is in her political twilight; Emmanuel Macron is in his pomp. The German chancellor is an advocate of patience with British indecision; her French counterpart is not.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League has been expelled from government. In Austria, the 33-year-old conservative Sebastian Kurz triumphed in elections on Sunday at the expense of the xenophobic Freedom party. These are subtle shifts, not some tidal movement away from populism and nationalism, but they add to the feeling of seasonal change in Brussels. Brexit is seen as a tedious legacy issue. Johnson’s end-of-the-pier Donald Trump tribute act looks tired already.

Most EU leaders would be glad if the UK ended up renewing its European vows in a second referendum, but none is trying to engineer that outcome. Only paranoid Brexiteers see foreign plots to keep plucky Albion in the bloc against its will. The salient question in Brussels is not how to revive the gangrenous member, but how to manage its safe amputation.

Reaching a deal looks tricky. Getting it through parliament before 31 October is close to impossible. Opposition MPs have been radicalised by the whole prorogation episode – the prime minister’s brazen disregard for law and provocative refusal to apologise. Johnson’s domestic strategy is not really compatible with sound international diplomacy. To woo supporters of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, he casts the EU as a hostile power to which patriots never surrender. And Farage will depict any deal as craven capitulation.

Even if the bar were not set too high by the need to satisfy implacable Faragists, there are vast obstacles to mutual comprehension across the Channel. Johnson wants to take the UK out of the EU customs union, which cannot be done without border inspections and infrastructure. In the context of Northern Ireland, that means a level of security intrusion that was banished by the Good Friday agreement, and which no one who cares about peace would want to see restored. Hard Brexiteers say this problem can be solved with barcode scanners, GPS trackers and discreet checks miles away from the border. The EU keeps telling them they are wrong. Technology works for tracking goods that have been declared under the rules. But a working customs border needs enforcement, which means stopping shipments that break the rules.

What Johnson is really demanding when he says there can be no “backstop” is that Brussels turns a blind eye while the UK punches a hole in the EU single market – a portal for smugglers and fraudsters. The answer was no when May tried this in 2018. It is still no today. If some other country had tried this while Britain was still an active EU member with a rational grasp of how the single market works, London would have led the chorus of no.

It is hard to know how serious Johnson is about a deal because his tone is stuck in the parochial idiom of Tory Europhobia. He is trapped in the habit of using “Europe” and “Brussels” as rhetorical devices to mean foreign beasts that prey on sovereignty. Only when he is in the room with continental leaders does he remember that those words refer to powerful multinational institutions that require serious engagement.

The insular habit leads many Tory MPs to ascribe no value to the first 24 months of Brexit negotiations. In hardline Eurosceptic mythology, the original article 50 period was a forgettable interregnum between the referendum and the appointment of a properly Eurosceptic prime minister. May’s work is covered in mucky remainer fingerprints, and is thus disposable.

But for the EU, May’s tenure covered a serious intergovernmental process. It consumed precious time, energy and political capital. It yielded legal agreements, at least one of which – the 2017 “joint report” setting parameters for the Northern Irish backstop – was signed when Johnson was foreign secretary. He now pretends those texts are obsolete, which is a viable position for electioneering but a dead end in terms of Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

There is no reason why Merkel or Macron should fashion a deal to the specifications of a Tory campaign. While Downing Street is thinking about clap lines for a speech, the EU wants legal guarantees that can withstand future changes in the political weather. The two sides are not operating to the same time horizon. Both say they want a deal, but Johnson means a headline to get through the week; Brussels means a treaty to secure the integrity of the European project for a generation.

That misalignment of perspectives has plagued the Brexit process. Eurosceptics constantly underestimate EU states’ readiness to prize collective solidarity over relations with a splitter nation on its way out of the club. It never occurred to them, for example, that an Irish voice could carry further across the continent than an English one. They did not anticipate the difference between a European negotiation among member states (the kind where Britain often got its way) and a negotiation between the EU and an exiting country issuing unrealistic demands backed by improbable threats.

Johnson still has not grasped that shift in the balance of power. He is committed to the fiction that Britain stands equal in global stature to the EU, and wedded to an electoral strategy that treats cooperation as cowardice. The Tories might gain some domestic advantage by ramping up the bellicose rhetoric. The prime minister can scoop the same old cards back up from the table and repeat the same bluffs, hoping to win a new stack of votes. But that weird poker system doesn’t work in Brussels. Johnson never took Brexit seriously enough to begin with. He still doesn’t understand that for the EU, this isn’t a game.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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