EU and UK are playing a game of chicken – and Boris Johnson still can’t get Brexit done

A mutually destructive confrontation seems ever more likely, perhaps inevitable

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 10 November 2021 14:33
Lord Frost says UK has a ‘somewhat fractious relationship with EU’

If you thought Brexit was “done”, think again. Stand by for another whole year of Brexit negotiations in 2022 and the familiar spectre of a no-deal cliff edge at the end of it.

Boris Johnson regards the Northern Ireland protocol, which prevents a hard border with Ireland, as unfinished business. Allies say he is ready in principle to deploy what Brussels regards as the “nuclear option” of the protocol’s Article 16 to suspend key elements of it, but which UK officials describe as a “surgical strike”. The move would lift many of the checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Johnson’s aim: to show the EU that this would not put at risk its cherished single market, so it eventually concedes the virtually invisible trade border the UK wants.

The problem is that Johnson signed up to a real trade border in the Irish Sea in 2019. Either he didn’t understand it, as some Whitehall officials believe, or he always intended to rip it up after a general election in which he needed an EU agreement to allay fears about no deal. Or perhaps both. As Dominic Cummings told us, Johnson “never had a scoobydoo” what the agreement meant and Downing Street always intended to ditch it.

Northern Ireland Brexit row: What is the EU's olive branch to the UK to try and solve the dispute?

Cummings’s theory fits with what Brussels officials tell me about the current negotiations between David Frost, the Brexit minister, and Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president. Sefcovic made a generous offer last month to limit the impact of the checks but insiders say he has now turned from “dove to hawk” because he judges that David Frost is not negotiating in good faith. “He wants to totally reconstruct a deal he signed two years ago,” said one EU source. “It’s an act of hostility.”

Sefcovic is convinced Johnson has decided to invoke Article 16 within days and is briefing EU ambassadors today. On Friday, he will likely warn Frost of the grave consequences of such a move. “We are prepared and all options for retaliation are on the table,” said one EU diplomat. They include immediately imposing tariffs (perhaps on cars and whisky) and suspending the whole UK-EU trade agreement, or most of it, which would not take effect for a year but would end the “no tariffs, no quotas” deal if no compromise were reached.

Such a prospect would horrify UK business, already suffering supply chain problems caused by the pandemic and Brexit. Business needs stability, not the uncertainty that another 12 months of Brexit negotiations would bring. Investment by UK and foreign companies, vital for Johnson’s vision of a “high wage, high skill, high productivity economy”, would inevitably be hit. So would the growth on which Rishi Sunak’s Budget sums depend. Northern Irish businesses want the protocol to be made to work, not scrapped. Tariffs on what they export to Ireland and the rest of the EU would be a disaster. Ripping up an agreement 11 months after it was implemented would damage the world standing of “global Britain” – and Johnson’s relationship with Joe Biden. China and Russia would savour a diplomatic war among European “allies”.

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Despite all these downsides, the prime minister will likely press on with his plan. Aides argue that Sefcovic’s proposals are nowhere near as good as he claims and would reduce checks on food by only 10 per cent, rather than the 80 per cent billed.

Both sides are playing a game of chicken. They both suspect the other lot will back down first, but that makes an unnecessary and mutually destructive confrontation even more likely, and perhaps inevitable.

Although Downing Street strongly denies it, there is a part of Johnson that relishes the Brussels-bashing, which was his trademark as a journalist, and believes it bolsters his support among Leave voters who flocked to him at the 2019 election. But this could prove a lazy assumption. Many who backed the Tories to “get Brexit done” were not desperate to leave the EU but to end the interminable saga. Many would be unhappy about a year of talks on a deal that was supposed to be “oven-ready” in 2019.

Frost’s uncompromising style leads some MPs to believe he is the one driving the UK towards another cliff edge. Yet Whitehall insiders tell me Frost is the softer cop obeying orders from the hard man at the top: Johnson. That suggests the only people who can head off a disastrous war with the UK’s natural allies are his normally supine cabinet. Don’t bet on it.

So it comes down to Johnson himself. He should reflect on the deepening mire he is in after his ill-thought out attempt to save Owen Paterson’s skin. On that occasion, about a dozen of Paterson’s fellow hardline Brexiteers were the tail that wagged the government dog. The same bunch would be delighted if Johnson opted for war rather than peace with the EU. He should learn the lesson from the Paterson fiasco and look before he leaps.

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