Brexit Can Get Much More Toxic From Here

Sunday, 29 September, 2019 - 07:00

Brexit Can Get Much More Toxic From Here

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on the ropes, with his political authority crumbling after the country’s Supreme Court nixed his bid to suspend Parliament just weeks before the Oct. 31 deadline for Brexit to finally take place. It’s the latest in a string of defeats for Johnson, whose self-styled image as the Incredible Hulk of Brexit is detached from the reality in Westminster, where he has no majority, and in Brussels, where he has no allies.

While this might look like a golden chance for the European Union to nudge the UK into a softer approach on Brexit, a compromise still looks incredibly distant.

If the Supreme Court verdict tips the scales at all in the standoff, it’s in making it more likely that Johnson respects the will of his parliament and asks for an extension to next month’s UK withdrawal date, despite having said he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than do such a thing. Humiliation in the courts at home is a taste of what awaits Johnson in Brussels if he tries to weasel out of his commitments to request an extension. That will comfort European officials, who would most probably agree to it. Mainly because taking more time to find a solution reduces the threat of a no-deal Brexit, which would be economically harmful to both sides.

Yet European diplomats can also see that the political bedlam in the UK lends itself to delay without decisions. Lawmakers in Parliament were able to set aside their differences to tie Johnson’s hands and seek an extension, but that’s about all they can agree on. This is the same parliament that rejected the former prime minister Theresa May’s hard-fought Brexit deal with the EU three times. Unless there’s an election — another decision on which MPs have a final say — that won’t change.

But even an election is a grim prospect for European capitals hoping for a friendly resolution to the Brexit mess. The opposition Labour Party’s Brexit policy is a painful contortion act that’s almost impossible to understand; the centrist Liberal Democrats’ idea to cancel Brexit altogether is seen as extreme. The longer this drags on, the more it eats away at the smooth functioning of the EU.

There might be more optimism in Brussels if the outline of a workable deal was already sitting on a desk somewhere in the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters. But it isn’t. Johnson’s regular bashing of his predecessor’s “backstop” proposal to avoid a return to a hard border in Ireland and protect the EU single market hasn’t led to any convincing alternatives. Officials say the proposals sent in by the UK on alternative arrangements aren’t concrete enough to be considered operational in time for an Oct. 31 exit. And Johnson’s weakness will give the 27 leaders facing him even less incentive to erase crucial red lines, despite the claim by Michael Gove, the UK minister in charge of a no-deal Brexit, that they’re “shifting” on the backstop.

In an ideal world, a series of blows landing on Johnson would bring the match closer to an end. Europe should still try to extract maximum concessions from the UK, given it has no choice but to negotiate with the current Westminster government while trying to preserve unity among the rest of its member states — which is going to get harder the longer this drags on. If there’s a window to try yet again to put a deal before the UK parliament, the EU should grab it.

But this is more like a soccer match with 27 players on one side lining up to defend while the player in the opposite team tries to pick up the ball and go home. The EU is good at setting rules and red lines and sticking to them; it’s less good at unilaterally imposing its will. The UK is hemmed in by its own internal contradictions, at least until an election or a second referendum breaks the impasse. Brexit can get plenty more toxic from here.

Bloomberg

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