As the new PM enters No 10, EU leaders brace for an October crunch

Johnson will be given a fair hearing by the 27—but a substantial renegotiation is still unlikely

July 24, 2019
French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: Szwarc Henri/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: Szwarc Henri/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

Yesterday, Conservative Party members elected Boris Johnson as their new leader, and Britain’s 55th prime minister. On Brexit, he has pledged a number of changes, including losing the Irish backstop. The EU is bracing itself for an October crunch point—what are the possible outcomes?

Johnson’s victory will have come as no surprise in Europe. EU leaders, from Emmanuel Macron to the new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, were quick to congratulate him. But not all in Europe are enthusiastic about the appointment: news coverage has been more mixed, with commentators calling him a buffoon, populist and close friend of Trump. They also question his willingness to work constructively with the EU. In the past, certain EU politicians have been similarly sceptical.

Few expect Johnson to deliver a clear Brexit strategy before the summer. He has said that he will withhold any so-called divorce payment unless the EU agrees to renegotiate. But in Brussels, he is a well-known figure; and some doubt whether this will be the Brexit strategy he sticks to.

Instead, they will be looking for clues: first, who Johnson appoints as chancellor and Brexit secretary; then, who he surrounds himself with at No 10. Time is of the essence so appointing advisers with direct experience of negotiating with the EU, or who understand the Brexit trade-offs so far, will be important, to ensure he can turn his campaign promises into serious policy proposals.

But with MPs possibly sitting for less than 24 days between now and 31st October, the EU is preparing for an autumn showdown. All outcomes are still possible.

The first is a revised deal. For its part, the EU has indicated that it would be open to further talks but has ruled out any substantial renegotiation for now (though the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Committee will be meeting with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator tomorrow to discuss options). But even then, the position is unlikely to change drastically: the best deal is already on the table and is the result of compromise. So if the UK government is serious about renegotiation, it will need to convince that changes can work for the EU and also MPs in Westminster. For example, a new exchange of letters that can persuade the UK attorney general to change his advice on the backstop or a stronger political declaration that makes clear that the UK will be looking to strike a looser, Canada-style free trade agreement after Brexit.

The second is a no-deal Brexit. Johnson has insisted that Britain could thrive under such circumstances. But while a no deal would hit the EU, the threat is also unlikely to change the minds of EU leaders. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the EU27 generally feel more able to deal with the consequences, even if those leave an individual member state—Ireland—very exposed. Second, they think it would place the UK in a worse negotiating position than now. Third, they have faced little, if no pressure, from EU businesses or citizens to change tack. For the EU, it is clear: if the UK leaves without a deal, it would be because it has chosen that path.

And finally, there is the possibility of another extension, to make time either for a general election, or second referendum (though that would involve a significant U-turn on Johnson’s part). Ursula von der Leyen, the new Commission president, has said the EU would be ready to extend further—although European leaders may ask for tougher conditions. For example, they could decide that this is the last extension on offer and that the UK must continue to act in a spirit of “sincere cooperation”—that is, not obstruct EU decisions in other areas. This is particularly important given a new EU Commission will begin work in the Autumn.

Which outcome will transpire is hard to predict. It is not only substance that is important—so is style. What the prime minister says in his first days in office will matter. If Johnson is excessively confrontational, that will impact the degree to which the EU stands ready to help. Where he travels first could also constrain the EU’s ability to be more flexible. A decision to visit Washington DC before going to EU capitals could be interpreted as a sign that the UK is more interested in fostering close trade ties with the US. These words and actions could reduce space for goodwill in any renegotiation.

The ultimate result though will depend on Johnson’s ability to persuade EU leaders and his fellow MPs that a revised deal can be achieved. And then of course, the question remains: will there be enough time?