Boris Johnson on a Tour of Escapades

The new British prime minister presents his contradictions in Berlin and Paris

Boris Johnson at the G7 summit – Twitter: Boris Johnson, 26.08.19

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tours Europe as the political Harry Houdini, the legendary escape artist. Observers on both sides of the English Channel are eager to see how he wants to free himself from the contradictions he himself has formulated. His stops are Berlin, Paris and Biarritz.


During his first month in office as Prime Minister, Johnson had spoken mainly about, but hardly with, the European Union’s negotiators. At the beginning of this week, the new head of government then wrote for the first time in a letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, what he had already explained to his British audience on several occasions: the backstop, the insurance against recidivism to avoid border fortifications on the Irish island, was undemocratic and should be deleted from the joint withdrawal agreement. At the same time, Johnson said his government was “deeply committed to peace, prosperity and security in Northern Ireland and would never introduce border fences, checks or controls”.

EU Council President Tusk reacted promptly to this contradictory statement and said: “Those who are against backstop, but do not offer a realistic alternative, ultimately support the construction of border fortifications”. He is quite right, however, because when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union and thus also the internal market and the EU customs territory, goods that are exchanged between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have to be checked. Otherwise, food standards could be undermined or customs duties circumvented – an unacceptable consequence for the Republic of Ireland and the European Union.


Backstop Necessary

For the first time this week, Boris Johnson faces the challenge of defending his contradictory stance towards the heads of government of other EU member states. The first stop on his trip yesterday was the Federal Chancellery in Berlin. The meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s longest-serving head of government, and novice Johnson went well. Merkel replied to her counterpart at the joint press conference that “the backstop was only an expression of an unsolved problem. (…) Perhaps a solution can be found in thirty days”. However, she did not forget to add that “Britain should say, what its expectations are”.

Prime Minister Johnson was obviously pleased with the Chancellor’s positive attitude and did not reply without British humour, but in German: “We can do it!” In some British newspapers, the Chancellor’s statements have already been interpreted as a possible signal for a breakthrough in the Brexit process.

But Merkel actually only repeated what had always been clear: Firstly, the backstop is only a backup, if no better solution is found. Secondly, it is up to the British to find a better solution. Thirdly, all concerned know that there is probably no better solution. At least it could not be found during the negotiations of the last two years, which says a lot about the likelihood of finding it within the next thirty days. Fourthly – and this was only between the lines of Chancellor Merkel’s statements – it follows that the backstop is necessary and cannot be removed from the withdrawal agreement.


Visit to Macron and the G7

With the same message, but less diplomacy, he visited President Emmanuel Macron for lunch. He had already made his attitude towards the plans of the British government clear on Wednesday, in a two-and-a-half-hour interview. Johnson’s proposals to remove the backstop were “not an option”. In his letter, the British Prime Minister suggested that “one must choose between the integrity of the EU’s internal market and respect for the Irish Good Friday Agreement. We will not choose between these two”. With a view to a possible free trade agreement, between the United States and the United Kingdom, he warned that the British would become a political and economic vassal of the transatlantic partner.

The French President’s statements are much more inconvenient for the British Prime Minister and outstrip those of the Chancellor by far in terms of clarity. Yet Merkel and Macron differ in their attitude to Brexit only in style and form, but hardly in content. Both are clearly of the opinion that the resignation agreement cannot be renegotiated and that the backstop cannot be cancelled. Boris Johnson will have to prove in the coming weeks, how he wants to unleash himself from his contradictions.

The next opportunity for this will be the weekend in Biarritz, France. At the G7 summit, the British head of government will meet Merkel, Macron and a man he likes to be compared to: US President Donald Trump. Host Macron and Chancellor Merkel will then be able to get a better picture of where Johnson actually stands: between populism and responsible government action, between free trade and protectionism and between multilateralism and isolation.



Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager