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by Joe Berkhout 7th August, 2019
3 min read

EU response to Johnson

Any speculation that Boris Johnson would tone down his rhetoric on his commitment to a 31 October Brexit date upon taking office has been shut down emphatically. Since his appointment last week, Johnson appointed a raft of Brexiters to his Cabinet, installed Vote Leave guru Dominic Cummings as special adviser and has hammered home his intention during every speaking opportunity.

Despite this, the reality is that arithmetic in Parliament has not changed and there is little appetite for a no-deal Brexit. Given the Government’s slender majority and the movement of some key anti-Brexit figures from the Government to the backbenches, there is a possibility that Johnson will be frustrated in his quest to leave at the earliest opportunity. If Parliament succeeds in legislating to block no deal, the ball would once again be in the court of the EU.

Not a popular man

It is fair to say that Boris Johnson is not a popular man among European political elites. Johnson riled many during his time as Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, angered them further with his role in the Brexit campaign, and compounded this reputation during his stint as Foreign Secretary. His appointment as Prime Minister was greeted with messages of congratulations through gritted teeth by the leaders with whom he must now negotiate.

Much has changed in the UK since the original Brexit deadline in March, and the same can be said of the EU. It is worth considering how these changes may shape decision making on the European side.

Germany

German politics could yet play a more important role than is currently appreciated by many in the UK. State elections are set to be held in Brandenburg and Saxony on 1 September, and there is a possibility that both governing parties (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) suffer significant losses. There are concerns about Angela Merkel’s health after several public shaking fits over the summer, and her role in the election of new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen against the will of her coalition partners revealed ruptures in the governing partnership, which was already under pressure.

Merkel, wary of the effect a no-deal Brexit would have on German exports, pushed for a softer approach on the original extension, but her influence is likely to be weakened by the time of the next deadline. This could play into the hands of those who believe that now is the time to cut ties, to avoid being dragged down further by the British impasse.

France

Emmanuel Macron’s influence has arguably been enhanced by upheaval elsewhere, and he made his position on this issue clear during the emergency summit in March. He is keen to take on a leadership role within the EU but is aware of the risks of being painted as the man who kicked the UK out with no deal – a picture the British press would have no issues conjuring. There may also be serious damage to his reputation in members states that stand to suffer most severely from a no-deal outcome. At this point, it is unclear which way Macron may swing in October.

Ireland

The country that stands to suffer most from a disorderly Brexit, both in economic and political terms, is Ireland. Although there have been no changes to key personnel since the last deadline, there has been a marked escalation of rhetoric, both from the Irish leadership and Brussels. Given the precarious nature of the current situation, the EU Commission has committed to “spend whatever necessary” in order to support Ireland in the case of a no deal. Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar talked up the prospect of a united Ireland if the UK leaves without a deal.

Rest of Europe

There are few other member states that could realistically exert influence on the final decision. Spain has a temporary Government that will likely need to go back to the polls after two failed attempts to form a coalition. Italy’s Government looks increasingly unstable following the League’s strong results at the European elections, in which Matteo Salvini’s party massively outperformed their senior coalition partners, the Five Star Movement. It has been rumoured that Salvini may be ready to bring down the Government to precipitate a General Election, which his party would be favourite to win.

See more articles by Joe Berkhout