During the slow, spasmodic death of the May premiership, UK and EU negotiators stopped hearing each other, particularly over the idea of changing the withdrawal agreement and its Irish backstop: the Brits insisted it was possible; the Europeans said non/nein/nej.
For a while it seemed the Conservative leadership got the message and plugged the deal (with the backstop) as the only option, but now both of our would-be PMs are, in their very different ways, talking about reopening the issue. The reaction in Europe is disbelief.
Jeremy Hunt says "there’s a deal to be made" by a savvy negotiator, as though breaking a major international impasse in the face of near overwhelming political and diplomatic headwinds is the same as agreeing an acquisition as an SME publisher.
Boris Johnson, who remains the front-runner despite argument-gate, says we’re leaving in October, "do or die", but there have been those who insist this is simply adherence to the axiom of good negotiation that you’ve got to be prepared to walk away, rather than a sign of iron will.
Faced with a British PM willing to go all the way in this theatrical game of chicken, willing to engage in an eye-watering staring competition with Michel Barnier, and armed with plenty of swagger, a deal could theoretically be done.
Whether or not you can in theory, in practice you’d need desire from both sides to make it work. The EU is going to prioritise protecting the interests of Ireland, as it has consistently done, which is why they will continue to refuse to budge on the withdrawal agreement. Johnson will make a show of playing hard ball, but I don’t expect much compromise from the EU, particularly for someone who has acted in the manner he has.
Hunt is likely right: EU trust in UK leaders is at an all-time low. They see Britain’s blatant self-interest in seeking a trading arrangement that will give it an advantage over EU states in attracting investment from outside Europe, while still enjoying decent enough access to the single market. What’s in it for them? It’s a bit like the revolutionary French asking the British monarchy to cut off their own heads while preparing the royal palaces for their arrival.
While posturing for the cameras and the Tory faithful, Johnson’s plan to get through this impasse appears to be based on a sleight of hand where the UK leaves but agrees with the EU that nothing actually changes while a new arrangement is agreed, a kind of super-fudge so he can say Brexit has happened and get Farage off his back.
Maybe he’s onto something, but I doubt it. What’s more likely is that the failed negotiation will be used to show that the EU is unreasonably intransigent, like some spoiled Bourbon king, leading to a ‘democratic event’ – either a general election or a second referendum on no deal vs no Brexit.
Gibraltar may prove the wildcard Johnson (or Hunt, but probably Johnson) needs. The integrity of Spain is a big issue in Madrid, not least since the independence ruckus in Catalonia a couple of years ago. There are voices there to use Brexit to regain Gibraltar, or at least change the nature of its relationship with Spain and the UK. This of course would help our new leader – nothing boosts a new PM like a spot of overseas sabre-rattling.
Image credit: Annika Haas, EU2017EE Presidency/Flickr (Creative Commons)