Boris Johnson’s visit to Brussels this week accompanied itself with a sense of irony, awkwardness and an underlying premonition that the UK government has sealed its own forlorn fate.
One can only speculate as to the bizarre sense of obstinate tension hanging in the air of the 13th floor of the Berlaymont on Wednesday evening, as Johnson and Commission President von der Leyen tucked into a late-night supper of steamed turbot.
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Irony served up on European Commission branded plates, turbot is a flatfish common to the waters of the Northeast Atlantic, with primary producers being listed as the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark – very much a pan-European catch. This serving, potentially fished out of British waters, was savoured by EU palates on Wednesday evening. Not, however, without depositing an acrimonious and bitter taste upon digestion.
Few could have expected the fraught divisions in the ongoing Brexit trade talks to have gone on for quite so long. The feeble and theatrical attempt by the UK government to present what it had packaged as an olive branch earlier this week in agreeing to remove the parts of its Internal Market Bill that had breached international law was seen by bureaucrats in Brussels for what it really was: an insincere swoop to gain political leverage in the trade talks.
“We didn’t take the bait, we saw straight through the UK’s strategy,” one EU source close to the negotiations told me earlier this week. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the UK government never actually had any intention of adopting the controversial aspects of the Internal Market Bill, which would have given UK ministers unilateral powers to override the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement on customs checks for goods travelling to and from Northern Ireland.
I’d assume that the new powers the UK government had planned on giving itself were simply being deployed as artillery in the government’s armoury for the negotiations. Brussels saw straight through it.
Meanwhile, the UK’s clandestine tactics were woefully exposed later in the week anyway, when Cabinet Minister Michael Gove decided to, in a faux-comedic display of hubris, praise his own righteousness in withdrawing the contentious aspects of the bill.
Yet in the same breath, Gove also decided to refer to his Brussels counterpart in the EU-UK Joint Committee, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, as the ‘sausage king’ who had persuaded the UK to agree to ‘minor’ checks along the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and Britain, nevertheless facilitating the free-flow of pork-based products between the two landmasses.
And whether or not the UK government’s political foreplay over the Internal Market Bill was in vain or not, it did expose a startling reality in Johnson’s positioning: if either of the two sides has to prepare themselves for some sort of a capitulation, it simply must be the UK.
This dawning presentiment would have been at the forefront of Johnson’s mind on Wednesday evening, as he was unpicking the turbot flesh from in between his teeth, in the very building that three decades ago as a journalist, he had reported would soon be demolished. Years later, the Berlaymont is still standing and it is rather the fortitude of Johnson’s Brexit assembly that is being put to the test.
UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak conceded earlier this year that the UK economy is set for its most seismic economic downturn for the past 300 years. With any further disruptions to trade that may emerge as a result of tariffs and border restrictions in the new year, surely Johnson would have the balance of mind and conscientiousness not to plunge millions of UK businesses into further hardship?
Figures announced by the British Retail Consortium this week show that 85% of food imports to the UK from the EU would be slapped with tariffs of more than 5%, and in terms of exports, UK dairy products being sent to the continent would face a 35% levy. With regards to the latter category, under these terms, perhaps the taste for British dairy in European mouths could very soon dry to a dust?
It’s difficult to know what Johnson’s latest ploy was all about with regards to once again prepping reporters on Thursday with the ‘Australian-style deal’ leitmotif. Some believed that the deployment of the term was being used to lay the groundwork for a terminable and absolute breakdown in talks on Sunday when both parties have agreed that a final decision on the future trading terms will be laid bare. A fudge is still possible but requires a significant retreat from one of the sides.
But then again, Johnson is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Should he wish to defend British business and take a hit to his rather nebulous concept of UK sovereignty, then this renders him at the mercy of the bloodthirsty appetites of hardline Brexiters in Parliament’s European Research Group.
In the other scenario where Johnson opts for a no-deal, he becomes the emblematic saviour of the fundamentalist Brexit cause but does so at the peril of UK market power in the EU – potentially resigning UK businesses to a reign of economic terror likely to last for decades to come. Either way, over the next three weeks, Johnson’s strength of political character will be tested like never before.
Such a dilemma must weigh heavily on a politician’s mind and I’m not surprised that the Johnson-von der Leyen tête-à-tête this week failed to bear any fruit. For these two world leaders – each of whom at one stage in their childhoods attended the same primary school in Brussels – we are still at the level of playground politics, fraught negotiations embellished by symbolic regimes of power and corrupted by hallucinations of sovereignty. Whether that will change before the end of the year – well, that’s anyone’s guess.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.