UK political debate has become untethered from the reality on the continentby Matthew Bevington / August 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
The summer build-up to the Autumn crisis. And the distance between the UK and the EU27 appears to be growing. Before Boris Johnson took over as prime minister, British demands concerned time-limits and exit clauses from the backstop. Now, they are about scrapping it altogether. The British position has also moved on the Irish border itself. Under Theresa May, checks and infrastructure were ruled out in all circumstances, yet both—albeit away from the border—now appear acceptable in London.
Whether this forms part of some UK grand strategy to eventually reach a deal with the EU, or is a precursor to a genuine push for no deal, remains unclear. But one thing appears obvious: there is a misunderstanding in the UK about what EU member states believe and how they will act.
I have spent recent weeks talking to diplomats in London from 11 of the 27 other member states. These included representatives from big and small member states, traditional UK allies and less Anglophile countries, and states from the north, south, east and west. They offered a frank view of their governments’ positions on the three main—and interlinked—issues we’ll be facing this autumn: no deal, a further Article 50 extension and renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. Let’s take them each in turn.
Most pressing, of course, is no deal itself. The UK government has taken a big step in this direction, aimed at convincing the EU that it is a credible threat. But there is a problem: the EU does not regard it as such. Economic forecasts derided by some in the UK are taken extremely seriously among the EU27. Their expectation is that the UK would be by far the worst hit and left in a weak, even unsustainable, position afterwards. They see the UK threatening to shoot itself in the foot as, frankly, no threat at all. EU leaders know that unless no deal means “never a deal” with the EU, on anything—even Johnson hasn’t suggested that—then the UK will soon be back at the table. The same exit issues will then be dealt with first.
It’s important to remember that the EU also has its eye on other negotiations, with the likes of the US. Weakness in talks with the UK would be fatal. We are caught—somewhat unknowingly—in the middle of EU-US trade tensions. By encouraging the UK towards an independent trade policy, the US stands to gain better access to the UK…