Hopes of an agreement, already faint, seemed all but dashed after a phone call between the German and British leaders.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, right, in September. Mr. Johnson’s spokesman described their most recent call as “frank.”Credit…Hayoung Jeon/EPA, via Shutterstock
Oct. 8, 2019
LONDON — Britain is giving up its efforts to strike a deal with the uncompromising European Union and will not return to the table. It will seek to leave the European Union, even without a deal. And toward that end, it will sabotage the bloc, sending provocateurs to represent it in Brussels and penalizing countries that vote to grant another Brexit extension.
So went the drumbeat of recrimination from officials, mostly anonymous, inside 10 Downing Street, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s already dim hopes for a negotiated exit with Brussels appeared to flicker out on Tuesday.
The threats and warnings from London are meant to disguise a highly inconvenient truth: Mr. Johnson is legally obliged to ask the European Union to extend the deadline of Oct. 31 for its departure from Europe, if he does not reach a deal by Oct. 19, despite his vow never to do so.
As the prime minister girds for a likely election, his political survival depends in part on looking like he is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into this reversal. Everything Mr. Johnson says and does is calculated to advance the narrative that he has been forced — by an irresponsible Parliament, overreaching courts and truculent Europeans — into breaking his promise.
This blame game took shape on Tuesday, after Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Mr. Johnson by phone. One British official, speaking anonymously, faulted her for dashing any last hopes of a deal, saying she told the prime minister that disagreements over Northern Ireland could not be bridged, “not just now but ever.”
Never mind that a German official said the call was “very friendly,” and that Ms. Merkel did not go beyond the European Union’s previously disclosed objections to Mr. Johnson’s proposal. Those have to do with keeping Northern Ireland in a separate customs union from the rest of Ireland and giving Northern Ireland’s assembly the right to veto the arrangement.
Perhaps prompted by Downing Street’s histrionics, a hard-line Brexit group criticized Ms. Merkel with a familiar anti-German trope, posting on Twitter a photograph of her and saying, “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a kraut.”
“What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said in a frustrated Twitter post addressed directly to Mr. Johnson. “At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people.”
There are dangers for Mr. Johnson in appearing to pursue a scorched earth strategy. Late on Tuesday, Downing Street said it hopes to schedule a meeting this week with the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, a vocal critic of the prime minister’s proposal.
For Mr. Johnson himself, however, winning the blame game could be critical to winning the election most analysts say is coming soon, perhaps next month. His Conservative Party faces a significant threat from the hard-line Brexit Party, which will seize on any perceived weakness in Mr. Johnson’s dealings with the European Union over Brexit — particularly if he appears too compliant in delaying Brexit.
Since Mr. Johnson took office in July, his aides have insisted that the prime minister was using “all means necessary,” in the words of his principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, to leave the European Union by the end of October. The message to pro-Brexit voters was that, if ultimately Mr. Johnson had to accept another delay, it would be the fault of many others, not him.
“What drives Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings is that they want an election,” said Jonathan Faull, a former senior official in the European Commission. “They also want the best possible circumstances in which to hold it, and that is a blame game.”
To Charles Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute, it is all about constructing a narrative of “the people versus the elite.”
“They understand theater in Downing Street,” Mr. Grant said, “and the theater of ‘the people’s Boris’ being pushed around by out-of-touch judges and other European Council leaders, suits his narrative.”
There is some evidence the strategy is working. A survey for the Daily Telegraph by the polling firm, ComRes, found that only just over half of voters, or 56 percent, would blame Mr. Johnson if Brexit does not happen on Oct 31, while 83 percent said they would blame Parliament.
But the success of this approach depends in large part on Mr. Johnson and his allies hammering away at his continuing efforts to break free from the bloc, despite the legislation passed by Parliament to stop Britain from leaving without an agreement.
Some analysts believe the government might be trying to engineer an “accidental Brexit,” throwing up so many legal and political obstacles that the European Union runs out of time to authorize an extension before Oct. 31.
“They’re hoping they can exploit the confusion about an extension by pushing Parliament, pushing the courts, pushing the E.U,” said Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Institute for Government, a London-based research organization.
Still, if Britain’s Supreme Court ultimately instructs Mr. Johnson to request another Brexit extension, he will have no choice but to comply. Were he to refuse, senior cabinet members, like the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, would likely resign, plunging the government into crisis.
That has not stopped Mr. Johnson’s aides from floating any number of provocative rumors. Britain, they said, could pressure other European nations to veto any extension of Brexit. If trapped inside the bloc, it could threaten to block business in Brussels, including agreement on a new European budget.
Britain might also refuse to nominate a European Commissioner, causing legal complications since every member state is required to have one. It might even send a hard-liner to Brussels, perhaps even the populist Brexit campaigner, Nigel Farage, to act as a cat among the pigeons.
On Monday, an anonymous Downing Street official suggested to the political editor of the Spectator magazine that the British would withdraw cooperation, perhaps on security issues, from governments that agree to an extension.
“We will make clear privately and publicly that countries which oppose delay will go the front of the queue for future cooperation — cooperation on things both within and outside E.U. competences. Those who support delay will go to the bottom of the queue,” the Spectator quoted the official as saying.
Previous British efforts to divide European Union nations over Brexit have failed, and experts believe this time is no different. Such tactics, Mr. Grant said, “will annoy people but are not going to change anything fundamentally.”
Blocking business in Brussels is another empty threat since Britain, like other members, has veto rights only on certain issues and Europe’s budget decision will not arrive until next June. As for nominating a Brexit hard-liner as a European Commissioner, that, too, would lead to a stalemate because he or she would have to pass a vetting process.
“What would be the point of nominating Nigel Farage?” Mr. Faull said. “He wouldn’t get through the European Parliamentary hearing.”
Whatever the outcome of Brexit, he added, the British will still need to engage with Brussels on trade and other issues. “They are going to have to talk serious business soon, so why antagonize and poison that discussion?” he said.