EU Affairs

Politics Without Emergency Lane

Boris Johnson fights for his Brexit


In Brussels, the EU Commission and the British government are struggling to reach an agreement. They want to prevent or at least not be responsible for an uncontrolled withdrawal of the United Kingdom on 31st October. In London, the opposition is wrestling with itself for a second referendum.


In the shire of Kent they plan and build for the no deal. On 28th October “Operation Brock” comes into force here. Trucks on their way between London and the canal port of Dover then have to adhere to military speed limits and special routes to prevent the feared traffic infarction in southern England. Since February, motorists on the M20 motorway, the main artery on this route, have been able to enjoy the benefits of an additional lane divider. Starting in November, this will ensure that trucks on one side can accumulate, while traffic on the other can continue to flow in construction site mode. The victim of this precaution is the emergency lane – Brexit means a journey without a buffer zone, not only in politics, but also in road traffic.

However, whether the United Kingdom will really withdraw from the European Union without a treaty is anything but clear; even 14 days before the current Brexit deadline. Since a confidential conversation between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar last week, Brussels and London have seen “a pathway towards an agreement” and, after a break of several months, are again engaged in talks.

Under pressure from EU Council President Donald Tusk, London now appears to have recognised that Northern Ireland must remain within the scope of EU internal market and customs rules, in order to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. Customs controls on goods traded between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would take place in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland would, according to a diplomat, be“de jure in the UK’s customs territory but de facto in the European Union’s”. For Great Britain, this model would have the advantage, over the agreement negotiated by Theresa May, that it could conclude trade agreements with third countries as early as possible. The previous backstop for the whole of the United Kingdom would thus become a “Northern Ireland only backstop”.

Both sides have been cautiously optimistic so far. However, the negotiators must also be optimistic and constructive, because it is no longer just a matter of defending their own interests but also of not being the culprit after a possible failure of the talks. After all, who wants to be responsible for triggering an economic and social catastrophe that a no deal scenario could mean?

The European Union will nevertheless have to ask itself, whether it wishes to outsource the protection of the integrity of the internal market to the United Kingdom and its border controls in the Irish Sea. This question could also prove critical in the event of an agreement, if the European Parliament was needed to give its final assent.

If there really is an agreement, there will be very little time to translate the cornerstones of a possible agreement into a legislative text. Such an agreement should actually be approved by the Heads of Government of the Member States at tomorrow’s EU summit on Friday at the latest, and a special summit is already under discussion at the end of this month.

Even more crucial is the fact, that Boris Johnson has by law been obliged by the Lower House to request an extension of the deadline from his European counterparts, if no agreement is reached by Saturday. The British Government has already indicated that it respects this law and intends to make a request, if necessary. However, the opposition hardly trusts these announcements. Scottish MEP Joana Cherry (SNP) fears that Johnson could immediately follow a renewal request with its annulment. Other suspicions are that Johnson could urge the heads of government of other EU countries to reject his request, for example, by threatening to act as uncooperatively as possible in all EU policy areas.

Boris Johnson will be judged by his potential voters on whether he can keep his promise to lead the UK out of the European Union on 31st October. He has repeated this promise so often and so forcefully that he is denied the right to turn to the political emergency lane for an extension, just as the drivers on the M 20. Surveys suggest that he even has to keep his promise in order to achieve his most important goal, namely to become Prime Minister – a goal he can only really achieved by winning the House of Commons election.

In that House of Commons, Johnson can no longer rely on a majority since he kicked 21 conservative MPs out of his faction last month. Nor is he sure of the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The establishment of a customs border in the Irish Sea could in the long term increase the likelihood of Irish reunification – a horror scenario for the Northern Irish Unionists. In order to obtain approval for a new withdrawal agreement with the European Union, Johnson would therefore have to rely on the general fear of the consequences of an uncontrolled withdrawal. He can only hope for a few dissenters from the opposition Labour Group.

It is also possible, however, that the opposition will wrest control from him. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, has already requested a vote on a second Brexit referendum for next week. More than a million people are expected to vote for a people’s referendum at a demonstration on Saturday. Most recently in April, members of the House of Commons voted on this issue in a non-binding vote. At that time the vote was lost by 330 to 292. Whether it will succeed next week depends on how many Labour MEPs have changed their minds in the meantime.

This means that even 15 days before the official exit date all scenarios are still conceivable. What is certain is that there will be no emergency lane on the M20 between London and Folkestone for the foreseeable future.




Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager

Head of FNF Security Hub