EU views Boris Johnson’s fighting talk on Brexit as more bluster

Nobody in Brussels believes a deal can be negotiated and ratified by the end of 2020

British prime minister Boris Johnson alongside members of his cabinet in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/UK Parliament

British prime minister Boris Johnson alongside members of his cabinet in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/UK Parliament

 

As MPs piled into the House of Commons chamber for Lindsay Hoyle’s election as speaker, the swell of Conservatives soon overwhelmed the government’s green benches, seeping across the back towards the opposition benches. Theresa May bagged Ken Clarke’s old seat a few rows back from the front bench and Labour’s Harriet Harmon laid claim to defeated Beast of Bolsover Dennis Skinner’s spot below the gangway on the other side of the chamber.

Jeremy Corbyn entered to cheers from the Conservative benches and Boris Johnson announced that the new parliament was “one of the best parliaments this country has ever produced” and a vast improvement on its predecessor. 

Jeffrey Donaldson spoke on behalf of the DUP, paying tribute to former colleagues Nigel Dodds and Emma Little-Pengelly, who lost their seats last week. He also welcomed the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna and Alliance’s Stephen Farry, commending them for taking their seats, “unlike others”.

The prime minister did not look in Donaldson’s direction for most of his speech, a far cry from the obsequious nodding from the Conservative front bench that greeted the DUP in the last parliament, when their votes were needed.

Johnson will bring his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) back to parliament on Friday but it will be an amended version, shorn of guarantees on employment rights and environmental standards. It will include a new provision forbidding the government from extending the post-Brexit transition period beyond the end of December 2020.

With an 80-seat majority, Johnson can lift the prohibition if he changes his mind during the negotiations with the EU. But ruling out an extension of the transition amplifies the message that his government means business and that it will not spend years negotiating a free trade deal with the EU.

Downing Street on Tuesday ruled out any post-transition implementation period, so if Britain and the EU agree a deal towards the end of 2020, all the new arrangements for business will have to be in place a few weeks later.

Nobody in Brussels believes that a deal can be negotiated, agreed and ratified by the end of 2020 and EU negotiators view London’s fighting talk about the deadline as more of the same bluster that has characterised the British approach to Brexit from the start. But as the DUP learned the hard way, Johnson is an unusually protean politician who can slip out of his most cast-iron commitments without a second thought.

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