Johnson’s efforts to control talks rebuffed by Merkel
British PM visit fails to dent Brexit deadlock as German support for Ireland appears solid
Suppressing a smile, Chancellor Angela Merkel side-stepped Boris Johnson’s attempts to wrong-foot her in Berlin on Wednesday evening: first on the chancellery red carpet and, minutes later, during a joint press appearance.
On a gentle late-summer evening, Johnson, hands clasped behind his back, followed the chancellor through the military honours offered on all inaugural visits, but saw his efforts to decide direction and pace gently rebuffed by his host.
It was a similar scene inside where Merkel, now on her fifth British prime minister in 14 years, implied that the change of personnel and tone in Downing Street had changed nothing in the substance of the Brexit conundrum.
After Johnson suggested he had been quite clear about his “alternative arrangements” to the backstop so loathed by Brexiteers, he was gently corrected by Merkel.
“Britain should tell us what sort of ideas it has because it is not a core task of a German chancellor to understand the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in such detail . . . though I have learned a lot about this,” she said.
The German leader repeated her view that one way to sideline the backstop could lie in a more detailed discussion of the future EU-UK relationship.
Attempt at levity
Johnson conceded that the German leader suggested that alternative proposals to the backstop had not been proposed forcefully enough by his predecessor.
“I must say I am very glad listening to you tonight Angela to hear that at least the conversations that matter can now properly begin,” he said, suggesting that “patience and optimism” would help a deal over the line. “You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days – if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that.”
In an attempt at levity, Johnson trotted out Merkel’s “wir schaffen das” (we’ll manage this) slogan from the refugee crisis. It was unclear, among the press giggles, whether the British visitor was aware that the German leader has now buried the phrase after it became political cat-nip to the far-right.
Close allies of Merkel insisted the Johnson visit had changed nothing in German unwavering support for the Irish position on Brexit – including the backstop.
One source suggested the chancellor’s calls for “creative” solutions to the backstop standoff – in particular focusing on future relationships – was motivated by her personal frustration, as an onlooker rather than direct negotiator in talks, that no pragmatic solution had yet been found.
“In her inner being, she says that this cannot fail because of the backstop, that is the reason why she speaks as she does,” said the source, suggesting it was more Merkel thinking aloud and “not official German – or European – policy”.
If Ireland stands by the backstop arrangement, the source added, Berlin and the EU will not try to change that.
Asked whether Merkel’s love of pragmatism extended to policing any future outer EU border through Ireland, the senior Berlin source suggested that anything beyond pragmatism – demanding full border infrastructure, for instance – risked a flare-up of violence.
“I cannot imagine anyone – in Dublin, London, Berlin or Brussels – wanting to take responsibility for that,” the source said.
Berlin-based analysts agree there are no signs of a shift from Germany on the backstop.
“Despite the prospect of a hard Brexit becoming ever more likely, and the economic and political costs that would come with it for Germany, Berlin’s position remains consistent,” said Almut Möller, senior fellow and Berlin office head of the European Council of Foreign Relations.
“There are no serious new avenues that Berlin expects and would be willing to explore.”