Taking Brexit down to the wire

The chances of this week’s EU Council meeting having anything much to discuss and decide in terms of a Brexit deal are small to non-existent. But Boris Johnson is an artist of the political pirouette, explains Denis MacShane.

By Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe

12 Oct 2020

Boris Johnson is de facto prolonging the Brexit talks well beyond the 1 October cut-off point stipulated by Michael Barnier at the beginning of the year.

October was the key deadline to allow all 27 national governments to examine and agree a new EU-UK Treaty to establish a new relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe following the UK ceasing to be an EU Treaty signatory on 31 January.

To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has absorbed most government and Commission energy this year. The technicians have met under Michel Barnier and David Frost but there is no sense of any final run-in to a deal.

The chances, therefore, of the 15 October EU Council meeting having anything much to discuss and decide are small to non-existent.

“In his years of daily and weekly journalism he [Johnson] was a legend for never delivering his copy on time. Only at the very last moment or a bit later would the words coming tumbling in”

Johnson, of course, is a deadline merchant. In his years of daily and weekly journalism he was a legend for never delivering his copy on time. Only at the very last moment or a bit later would the words coming tumbling in.

So too we may have to wait until the last possible moment to see if a deal emerges. It might even suit Johnson to keep the Barnier-Frost show on the road into 2021.

The legal problems with that are substantial and it would be a major climb-down by Johnson to keep the UK within the EU framework of rules and regulations and the UK continuing to accept the four freedoms of movement of goods, capital, services and people; in other words inside the EU even having left the formal treaty structure.

The pressure is slowly building up in Britain. Economic actors - road hauliers, City firms, Japanese car plants, the giant chemical industry, all the professional services from lawyers to consultancy firms as well as the universities and creative industries - are expressing alarm about the cut in income and profits if a Brexit based on a total repudiation of the single market, data exchange rules, Galileo sat-navigation systems, or waiting in 50 km queues in Kent or approaching Calais arrives on New Year’s Day.

The global images of a hard or WTO Brexit will be very negative for Johnson and the Tory Party. His handling of Covid has been much criticised, with many Tory MPs attacking him publicly.

“Boris Johnson is an artist of the political pirouette, but he is leaving it even later than his always-late delivery of his copy when he was a journalist to find the way to a deal”

If his handling of Brexit adds fresh economic woes to an edgy, uncertain Britain it will be a massive gift to Labour under its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who is far ahead of Johnson in most polls on competence, and national leadership.

The European Parliament will also want a say and has the legal right to insist on ratification of any final agreement. Right now, the EU has made most concessions. France’s Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, is now insisting that French fishing communities cannot be sacrificed to Johnson.

None of the stars for a satisfactory deal seems be in alignment. Will they fall into place by Halloween, or even by December, when we will know if the pro-EU Joe Biden is the new US President of Johnson’s transatlantic very best friend, Donald Trump, who called the British Prime Minister, a “Britain Trump” is still in power?

Boris Johnson is an artist of the political pirouette, but he is leaving it even later than his always-late delivery of his copy when he was a journalist to find the way to a deal.

His problem is that almost any workable deal will be a major defeat and humiliation for those who promised Brexit would usher in a bright new future for Britain.

On the contrary, the pound has lost 20 percent of its 2016 value against the Euro. Scotland is poised to break apart from the United Kingdom. Johnson knows the Brexit hole he is in. Does he keep on digging?

Read the most recent articles written by Denis MacShane - The 10 Brexits Boris Johnson must consider

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