by Frank Schnittger
Mon Aug 26th, 2019 at 11:53:36 AM EST
Do you know who this is?
But the world's media were left speechless by a question put to them by US President Donald Trump at the G7 summit in the French resort town of Biarritz.
"Do you know who this is?" Mr Trump asked as he gestured towards Mr Johnson during a photo opportunity before the two entered a private meeting.
"Does everybody know?"
Introduced like the new boy on his first day in school, Trump touted Boris as his protégé: The right man to get the Brexit job done. Given that Trump has shown far more aptitude for shredding deals than actually negotiating them, that also sounded like a ringing endorsement for no deal.
Continued below the fold ...
So we have now had just over a month of Boris's statesmanship, and have had the chance to assess the cut of his jib. Not for Boris to slum it with some minor statesmen like Leo Varadker or Jean Claude Juncker. Despite saying he wouldn't meet with European leaders unless they dropped the Irish Backstop, he held summits with Merkel and Macron which were greeted by the British press with sycophantic eulogies as if some major breakthrough had been achieved. In actual fact he got lectures on the need to specify in detail what his "alternative solution" to the backstop actually is, and on the dangers of a hard border for the Irish peace process.
His big selling point? The threat to withhold £30 Billion from the agreed payment to cover the cost of the UK's outstanding commitments to the EU. Well at least now we know what the EU's price is, if they do decide to sell out the Republic of Ireland. But all the signs are that the EU is more united than ever in its resolve: It's the agreed Withdrawal Agreement or no deal, and if the UK decides on no deal, then so be it.
The Dominic Cummings inspired strategy of convincing the EU that the UK is serious about pursuing a no deal Brexit unless the Irish backstop is dropped has had its desired effect: The EU is convinced that that is now the most likely outcome. But far from persuading the EU to drop the backstop, it has had the opposite effect: The EU has decided that the UK can have its no deal Brexit if that is what it really wants. So much for Boris's bluff.
Furthermore, EU leaders are convinced that Boris's performance is largely for a domestic audience. An Autumn election is looking increasingly likely, and the only question is whether it will be after Brexit day (as Boris wants), or whether Parliament can force Boris - or some interim replacement Prime Minister - to request an A.50 extension to facilitate the holding of a general election and a second referendum, if that is what the incoming government wants to do.
From Boris's perspective, the difference is vital. If the election takes place after Brexit has happened, the whole rationale for the existence of the Brexit party will have disappeared. Brexit is their sole policy and raison d'être. A no deal Brexit would mean there is no daylight between their position and Boris's. The Tory party would no longer have a competitor for the right wing, xenophobic, Leave vote. Boris could clean up against a dis-united and chaotic opposition which no one believes would have the unity of purpose and chutzpah to carry a successful Brexit off.
Little can be done to stop Johnson crashing UK out of EU
A recent ComRes poll shows that in an election held after the UK has left with no deal, the Conservatives are likely win a majority in parliament with 36 per cent ahead of Labour 29 per cent, Liberals 15 per cent and the Brexit Party on 8 per cent. However, if the election happens after the UK has received an extension of article 50, Labour wins with 28 per cent followed by the Brexit Party on 23 per cent with the Tories and Liberals trailing on 22 per cent and 16 per cent. In other words, uniting the pro-no-deal Brexit minority by exiting before an election would benefit Johnson electorally.
To prevent a no deal Brexit from happening now, quite a few dissident Tories and independents who would be unlikely to be re-selected or elected would have to vote no confidence in Boris, and confidence in an alternative interim caretaker Prime Minister. It is clear the EU regard that as rather an unlikely long shot at this stage, given the timescales involved, the possibility that Boris might prorogue parliament, and the fact that turkeys do not tend to vote for Christmas...
So much of Boris's blather about the backstop makes sense only in the context of an impending UK general election. No serious technical discussions or negotiations about how "alternative solutions" might work have been taking place - behind the scenes or elsewhere. It has simply become a stick to beat the EU with - and a means of keeping the Brexit camp united behind Boris.
In my letter to the Editor of the Irish Independent I gave four reasons why Varadker couldn't compromise on the Backstop:
'Compromise on the backstop would solve nothing now'
The core weakness of Leo Varadkar's position is that a no-deal Brexit would create a hard customs Border with Northern Ireland - precisely the outcome his insistence on the backstop is designed to avoid.
Consequently, there are increasing calls from Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley and in the media for Mr Varadkar to back down from his insistence on the backstop in order to enable the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons. In my view there are at least four flaws in this argument:
The bottom line: We are where we are, and there is no going back.
- It is becoming increasingly clear even removing the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement entirely wouldn't guarantee its passage through the House of Commons. Hardline Brexiteers actually seem to want a no-deal Brexit.
- The EU has staked its entire position and credibility on avoiding a hard customs Border in Ireland (which they know would be a smugglers' paradise in any case). For Mr Varadkar to cave on this now would be like a stab in the back, undermining perhaps the most impressive display of EU solidarity in its history. He would lose all credibility with his EU peers were he to let them down now.
- Although there are isolated calls for compromise now, the moment Mr Varadkar concedes he and his party are consigned to electoral history. Fine Gael has never quite recovered from perceptions of being soft on patriotism by agreeing to the partition of Ireland as part of the 1922 peace settlement with Great Britain in the first place. This caused a civil war and an enduring split in Irish politics. To cave in to British bluff and bluster would be a national humiliation and would give Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin the boost they badly need.
- Compromising on the backstop would be seen as a betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland, who have benefited from border-less travel and trade with the Republic since the Good Friday Agreement and who voted by a large majority against Brexit. Many in the North (and not just nationalists) are also Irish citizens and would lose the EU dimension of that citizenship and the protections of their identity in the Good Friday Agreement if the backstop is dropped.
In retrospect, and on reflection, the most important reason is buried in reason #2 almost as an afterthought. The fact is that the land border will be a smugglers paradise. Any border infrastructure along a 500KM border with 300 crossing points will be impossible to protect from terrorist attacks. Any customs controls away from the border - such as in-company warehouse inspections - will be extremely resource intensive, easy to circumvent, and an invitation to crime. VAT evasion in a still largely cash economy is difficult enough to control and contain as it is.
It is vital for Varadker that he doesn't take responsibility for this disaster area. It has to be forced on him by circumstances beyond his control, and then he can say " I told you so". However from an EU perspective it is even more important that the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union is protected. The only practical way of doing this is at air and sea ports in both North and southern Ireland - effectively the "border down the Irish sea" so feared by the DUP. Everyone knows this, all else is bluster.
It remains unknown whether Boris will ultimately agree to this, if he wins an election and is no longer dependent on the DUP for his parliamentary majority. Certainly they have exhausted almost everyone's patience and goodwill in Westminster and beyond. Irish and EU attention will now turn gradually to what happens after a no deal Brexit has happened, and their demands will remain essentially unchanged. And the greater the post no-deal disruption, the more powerful their negotiating position.
The bottom line is that the Irish sea must become the EU/UK customs control zone. No one will say this openly because ultimately that is a matter for a sovereign UK. So officially the Irish and EU position is they will listen to any and all proposals the UK has on this matter. But only one solution will prove to be both practicable and acceptable to the Irish/EU side if and when the UK proposes it.
Northern Ireland voted by 56-44% to remain in the EU. The Good Friday Agreement mandates that major constitutional change can only come about through the consent of a majority in the territory (note: not the UK as a whole). The most elegant solution is that N. Ireland remains within both the UK and the EU, with the latter having jurisdiction over trade and customs matters between Britain and N. Ireland. But it will take another few rounds of bluff, blather and bluster before we can get there.