The European Union has abandoned indulgence of UK delusions, and you cannot blame them

The UK’s international reputation has never been lower, and its government has never been so utterly discredited

October 09, 2019
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Council President Donald Tusk at the G7 earlier this year. Photo: Andrew Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Council President Donald Tusk at the G7 earlier this year. Photo: Andrew Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

If the diplomatic gloves were ever really on, it is safe to say they have now been wrenched off. In an extraordinary week, Downing Street has issued a briefing explicitly threatening our closest allies with punishment, the prime minister has advertised the fact he intends to break the law, No 10 has attacked and smeared Angela Merkel, and European Council president Donald Tusk has openly berated Boris Johnson for playing games at the expense of his people’s livelihoods and security—and it’s still only Wednesday.

The briefing released on Monday night to the Spectator’s James Forsyth had all the hallmarks of the PM’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. It discussed the very normal ambition to explicitly thwart the will of parliament by not requesting a Brexit delay; almost hilariously declared that any EU member state which declined to throw us off the cliff would go to the “bottom of the queue” for cooperation; and implicitly warned that the UK would destabilise or sabotage the EU’s routine operation. It was an unprecedented outburst from a government which knows it has been cornered and outwitted. Tusk’s subsequent rebuke to Johnson that “what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game” revealed a near-reciprocal, if rather more justified, level of hostility from the Brussels camp. But it is also a side show. The language is not the key here. It is the change in strategy.

Put simply, the EU has abandoned its indulgence of the UK’s delusions. The Council, Commission and member states are publicly puncturing the UK’s hubris, abandoning their diplomatic politesse and issuing necessary home truths.

A key turning point came in further unattributed Downing Street briefings following Johnson’s call with Merkel on Tuesday. According to the note, Merkel had declared a deal “overwhelmingly unlikely,” remarked that Germany could leave the customs union “no problem” but the island of Ireland was a special case, and suggested Northern Ireland would not be able to leave the customs union without Dublin’s approval. The Downing Street source supplied their own gloss that the call was a “useful clarifying moment,” that a deal was “essentially impossible not just now but ever,” and for good measure added that Merkel and her colleagues were “willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.”

Set aside for a moment the naked projection about “torpedoing” the Good Friday Agreement. Overlook, too, the absurd language about Germany leaving the customs union “no problem,” which Merkel would clearly never have used. Downing Street was right about one thing here. Merkel’s general thrust—which Berlin has not denied—was indeed a clarifying moment. To preserve an open border and a fragile peace process, Northern Ireland must match the EU’s tariff arrangements indefinitely. This was, in fact, clarified a mere 22 months ago in the joint report of December 2017, agreed by the UK government, which engineered the backstop mechanism in the first place. The report specified tariff alignment “now or in the future [to] support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Good Friday] Agreement.”

Germany would, of course, never leave the customs union, but if it did, that would not jeopardise western Europe’s most fragile peace. The UK’s full departure would. If Merkel’s overall message was reported accurately, she was simply stating the reality as it has always existed: the whole UK can stay in the customs union or Great Britain alone can leave it, but the German government will follow the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and safeguard its security even if the British government will not.

The backstop was always going to be indefinite. It would last until unicorns came to replace it, and Dublin was satisfied that those unicorns were not in fact ponies to which Downing Street had attached traffic cones. Call that a “temporary” arrangement if you like, but you would be a brave gambler to place a bet on it. Theresa May consistently lied about the temporary nature of the backstop, and convinced many Tories, but it changed nothing then and changes nothing now. The alternative arrangements to replace the backstop have never been tested, and they will almost certainly not be good enough in the recognisable future.

The Merkel and Tusk incidents together illustrate something important that has been spelled out repeatedly over the last three years but, it seems, not sufficiently loudly. It is we who voted to leave. That was marketed as a request for autonomy. Now, the EU will duly look out for its own interests, not the interests of the UK government. The internal make-up of the UK is not a matter for the EU anymore. Nor is our ability to strike trade deals with Australia. The EU is, however, concerned with Ireland’s security and prosperity, and with the cohesive functioning of its single market. In the UK government’s final throes of cakeism, it affects to be deeply affronted that the EU is not still treating it with the care of a member state while simultaneously demanding to be cut loose in three weeks’ time.

As the EU unravels British delusions, the UK government simply doubles down on them. The Downing Street line on Tuesday that a deal is “essentially impossible” shows how the Brexit rhetoric has descended into outright preposterousness. Not even the most hardline mainstream Brexiters have argued that we can live without a deal with the EU for all time. The EU is our largest trading partner. We depend on cross-Channel supply chains for our food, medicines and general industry. That level of integration cannot be summarily replaced or wished away. If a deal with the EU is “essentially impossible,” then so is British daily life. The only impossible thing has always been the UK’s fantasy that it can get exactly what it wants.

Whenever we think British politics can sink no further, it seeks to surprise us. The fundamental problem has never been in Brussels, or Dublin, or Berlin, but in London. Our reputation has never been lower and our government never more discredited. But the real news this week is not that the British government is being led by nationalist infants. It is that the EU has stopped babysitting them. With three weeks to go until crash-out day, it is not before time.