This blogpost was written late on Friday August 23
When he became Prime Minister just a few weeks back, Boris Johnson told the world that he would not be running around European capitals, like Theresa May did, asking for a better Brexit deal. Instead, meetings would be held in London, with those annoying European leaders coming to see him.
Time to turn things around, to take back control. Oh, and before he would agree to see anyone the EU would need to “bin the Backstop”. That was a pre-condition to any talks.
No binning, no talks.
Well, that bulldog growl this week gave way to a little yelp as Johnson flew to Berlin and Paris, there to explain to Merkel and Macron why the Backstop had to go. Both politely insisted that the Backstop would stay, unless and until alternative arrangements to make the Backstop unnecessary could be agreed.
Here is the exchange between Merkel and Johnson at a press conference in Berlin:
Merkel: If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come. Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.
Johnson: You [Merkel] rightly say the onus is on us to produce those solutions, those ideas, to show how we can address the issue of the Northern Irish border and that is what we want to do. I must say I am very glad listening to you tonight Angela to hear that at least the conversations that matter can now properly begin. You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days – if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that.
Johnson supporting newspapers in the UK immediately hailed this as a “breakthrough for Boris”, claiming that he had forced agreement from Merkel to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). Johnson had “won” thirty days to bin the Backstop.
The German press, who understand the ways of Merkel better than non-German speaking UK journalists, reported that she meant no such thing. She had simply repeated, in her own polite way, what was already in the Withdrawal Agreement. If a workable alternative to the Backstop could be put on the table then the EU would be happy to work with that. Same as it ever was.
As Charles Grant of CER puts it the UK misunderstanding of Mrs Merkel was partly…
“because the British Eurosceptic class is very ignorant about the EU and how it works and what drives it. So, they clutch at straws. They mistake Merkel because her tone is polite and moderate.”
One of the things I was taught many years ago when I was learning the art of industrial relations negotiations was to never negotiate in public. It is much too easy to get bounced into making commitments that you later regret because you failed to take time to reflect on what was being suggested. Too easy to get trapped.
Look at the above exchange. Merkel repeats what is already in the WA. The Backstop can be replaced by suitable alternative arrangements if and when such alternative arrangements can be shown to work. She repeats the EU’s belief that such arrangements, if indeed they exist, could take years to perfect. But, she says, Mr Johnson, if you can come up with them in the next 30 days that would be great. But the onus is on you to come up with concrete proposals.
For me, the correct response would have been: “That’s very good to hear. Let’s sit down and talk through how we can speed the process of finding alternative arrangements.” All options are left open.
Instead, Johnson without taking time to explore exactly what Merkel meant, jumps in immediately accepts that the onus is on the UK to come up with a plan. He then further accepts the 30-day timeline. And not just an ordinary 30-day timeline. It’s a “blistering” 30-day timeline. Johnson doesn’t do ordinary. Policy by adjectives.
Just one catch, as UK journalist Peter Oborne notes:
Mr Johnson and Mrs Merkel agreed that the onus was on Britain — not Brussels — to find a way round it, something that has proved beyond the wit of the best Brexiteer brains so far for all Mr Johnson’s declarations otherwise.
Within the world of right-of-centre think tanks, experts have convinced one another that such “alternative arrangements” exist, even if all the required technology is not yet available. As an old English music hall song puts it:
If we had some eggs we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some ham.
As Mike Tyson might have said, the Brexiteers have an “alternative arrangements” plan that will not survive the first punch in the face from the EU. If, within the next 30 days, Johnson fails to produce a viable “alternative arrangements” plan what case can he then make for opposing the Backstop?
The reason there are no “alternative arrangements” to the Backstop is because the “Backstop” is just shorthand for the complex social, historical, cultural and ideological issues that surround the border on the island of Ireland. It is not a technical problem looking for a technical solution. And a bunch of mainly English people, the Alternative Arrangements Commission, turning up to tell the Irish that they are here to help doesn’t work.
Beyond the Backstop, EU leaders are rightly suspicious that even if they gave way to Johnson on the Irish border issue, which they won’t, that would not be enough. They believe, rightly, that there are other key areas of the WA he would also want to renegotiate. David Frost, his point man on Brexit, said as much in Brussels some weeks ago. Asked by the EU Commission if the Backstop was removed would that do it, he said no.
The Daily Telegraph reports the leading Brexiteer, David Davis, as saying:
“I’d argue for contingency on the money. I’d argue for tighter limits, timetable limits, sunset clauses on ECJ and things like that. I’d have a small shopping list.
“If I were doing this for Boris, I would be insistent on is that they make the bill – the £39 billion, the second half of it – contingent on progress on the future economic partnership.”
“We should have in place a future economic partnership, or the bones of it anyway, so that we carry on with free trade arrangements beyond that before we pay the next £20billion.”
If a key rule of negotiations is not to negotiate in public, an even more basic rule is not to assume you know what the other party means or has in mind if the language in a document they present to you is unclear. Ask them how they understand the language in question and what it would mean in practice. Don’t assume, ask.
The day before he went to see Merkel and Macron, Johnson sent a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. You can find it here. Johnson begins the letter by saying (our underlining):
With that in mind, I wanted to set out our position on some key aspects of our approach, and in particular on the so-called “Backstop” in the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement.
He then spends the next three pages explaining why the Backstop must go. Towards the end of the letter he asserts (again, our underlining)
I am equally confident that our parliament would be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the Backstop…
Nowhere else in the letter does Johnson explain what he means by “some key aspects”.
If the Backstop is just one aspect, what are the others? Are the other “aspects” the type of issues mentioned by David Davis? If not, what are they? That there are other aspects is confirmed by the use of the words “satisfactory agreement”.
If the Backstop was removed would the rest of the agreement as it stands be “satisfactory”? if not, why not? What would a “satisfactory agreement” look like?
Johnson’s letter to Tusk is what (when talking about negotiations) I call the “cattle rustler” stratagem. Instead of trying to make off with the whole herd at once, the rustler just takes one cow. The farmer does not even notice it is gone. The next night the rustler is back for another. Before the farmer realises it, half the herd is gone.
If Johnson succeeded in getting the Backstop removed he would not rest at that. Emboldened, he would be back for more. “Now that the Backstop issue has been resolved, can we turn to the other “key aspects” I flagged in my letter to President Tusk? Now, clearly, we can’t pay over the £39bn which you say we owe without getting something in return. So, we propose linking the payments to progress on a trade agreement”.
In a column in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, the political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley wrote:
Now ask yourself this: how likely are Europe’s leaders to make themselves look very stupid in order to make Boris Johnson look very clever?
The EU has no reason to make Johnson “look very clever” and there are three reasons why they will not “bin the Backstop” as he demands.
First, most of those who count despise Johnson for his years of lying about the EU while working as a journalist, as well as for what they see as his multiple lies during the Brexit campaign in 2016. They owe him no favours. How often in negotiations have I heard someone say: “If it was anyone else I’d see if there was wriggle room, I’d see what I could do. But not for that [insert your own phrase here]”.
Second, were the EU to make a major last-minute concession to the UK then other countries who are, or will be, in negotiations with the EU will draw the conclusion that when push comes to shove the EU will always back down. Brexiteers contend that the EU does back down and always cuts minute-to-midnight deals. What they forget to say is that these minute-to-midnight deals are internal to the EU, among existing members. There will be no such midnight Brexit deal and, if there is, it will be because the UK has backed down, taken fright at the chaos no-deal will release.
UK politicians and the bulk of the commentariat have not yet internalised that Brexit means out. They can’t deal with the fact that the UK will no longer be part of the game. The UK can leave but all will stay the same, they believe.
Third, the EU is not just Brussels, still less France and Germany, even if these two countries and “Brussels” are big power players. It is 27 member states, all of whom have their own interests. Most of them are small countries that see their place in the world being leveraged through EU membership. The EU adds value to their sovereignty. They would not take kindly to one of the small members being “thrown under a bus” to satisfy the demands of a departing member.
To these three reasons for the EU not “binning the Backstop” we can add a further consideration. Given the current configuration in the Commons could Johnson get agreement on anything he brings back from Brussels? There is a majority against “no-deal” but there is probably also a majority against a deal with just the Backstop removed. The “politics of hard numbers” means that the HOC is deadlocked. Why even think about any adjustments to the proposals on the table if there is no guarantee that the other side can deliver.
Since 2017 there have now been two UK governments, both drawn from the same political party, the Conservatives, elected on the same 2017 manifesto, with two radically different approaches to Brexit. What happens if there is an election before the end of the year and a government of a different political complexion were to take office with a very different take on Brexit?
Another important rule of negotiation is not to open talks unless and until you have broad consensus on your own side. May never took the time to do so and Johnson is not going to do so either. UK politicians are too imbued with the “winner take all” mentality to even imagine doing so.
So, that’s where we are with just over two months to go.
The UK asking the EU if it could find a herd of unicorns to help push Brexit “over the line”. Merkel and Macron both said no, but Merkel helpfully suggested that if the UK could find such a herd she would be delighted to see them.
Finally, something always worth remembering when you read about UK “demands” in the Brexit talks. The UK chose to leave. It was not pushed out. And leavers do not get to dictate the terms under which they leave.
As we said last week, best to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.