As Merkel and Johnson clash, the odds of a Brexit deal fade

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) welcomed the president of the European Parliament, David Sassol, at 10 Downing St. in London on Tuesday.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) welcomed the president of the European Parliament, David Sassol, at 10 Downing St. in London on Tuesday.Frank Augstein/Associated Press/Associated Press

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 No. 10 Downing St., as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s already dim hopes for a negotiated exit with Brussels appeared to flicker out Tuesday.

The threats and warnings from London are meant to disguise a highly inconvenient truth: 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 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 Tuesday, after Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke with 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 Merkel did not go beyond the EU’s previously disclosed objections to 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 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 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 Johnson in appearing to pursue a scorched earth strategy. Late 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 Johnson, 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 Johnson’s dealings with the European Union over Brexit — particularly if he appears too compliant in delaying Brexit.

Since 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 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, 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,” 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.”

Still, if Britain’s Supreme Court ultimately instructs 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 probably resign, plunging the government into crisis.

That has not stopped 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 EU 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 EU nations over Brexit have failed, and specialists believe this time is no different. Such tactics, Grant said, “will annoy people but are not going to change anything fundamentally.”