Europe can only watch and wait as Brexit drama plays out
London’s struggle to put forward meaningful proposals is marked feature of negotiations
In his attempt to play the two-level game to his advantage British prime minister Boris Johnson has been disingenuous in his portrayal of contacts between London and Brussels. Photograph: Peter Summers/PA Wire
Irish eyes are focused on political developments in London as Brexit enters a new and more dangerous phase. Not all of Europe’s political drama, however, is being played out in the UK. On Sunday regional elections in Brandenburg and Saxony led to an uncomfortable outcome for Germany’s two traditional parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Although the SPD emerged as the largest party in Brandenburg and the CDU/CSU in Saxony, both parties lost votes to the hard right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Germany is no longer immune to the fragmentation of the party system and the rise of the radical right, a marked feature of contemporary European politics. The result puts renewed pressure on the Germany’s governing coalition but will not trigger an immediate collapse of what is called the the “GroKo”.
In Spain, caretaker Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez is still trying to form a governing coalition following the April 28th election. He is making overtures to Podemos in the hope of avoiding another election, the third since December 2015.
The political drama in Rome almost equals that in London but with a very different outcome. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, wanted an election to benefit from his growing support in the polls but he did not count on the institutional role of the Italian president. President Sergio Mattarella, rather than call an immediate election, held consultations with the political parties to see if an alternative coalition might emerge. The Five* and the left-wing PD have managed to agree a programme of government and the Five* membership endorsed the new coalition by 79 per cent. Salvini is heading for the opposition benches.
Events in Rome, especially the decisive role of the presidency, highlight the institutional weakness of the UK’s unwritten constitution and the symbolic role of the monarchy. Political developments elsewhere in Europe are a timely reminder that all member states have domestic politics and that political turmoil in London is a sideshow for many in Europe. Nor will these continental political developments have any tangible effect on how the next phase of Brexit plays out. Member-state preferences on Brexit have not shifted since Boris Johnson came to power, which brings the focus back to London.
Negotiating Brexit is a classical two-level game involving the domestic politics of the UK and negotiations between London and Brussels. Johnson has had a torrid two days in the House of Commons, effectively losing three votes. His decision to prorogue parliament forced those opposing a no-deal Brexit to act sooner rather than later and it appears as if they will be successful in legislating against a no-deal outcome on October 31st, but the political situation in the UK remains extremely volatile. Labour has not agreed to an election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and has said it will only countenance it when the Bill preventing no-deal receives royal assent.
An election is inevitable but its timing is crucial. If the election is held before October 31st and if the Conservatives gain a majority, there is nothing to stop Johnson repealing the no-deal legislation and crashing out so it is vital that the opposition does not fall into an election trap before October 31st.
Johnson in his attempt to play the two-level game to his advantage has been disingenuous in his portrayal of contacts between London and Brussels. He argues that there is a shift in the EU stance and that the UK will get a better deal before October 31st. There is no evidence at all of what that better deal might consist of. For a government intent on renegotiating the backstop, London has not put a single proposal on the table. All Brussels received is Johnson’s uncompromising rambling letter to Donald Tusk of August 19th.
For over three years now, Task Force 50 and the European Council president have repeatedly asked London for credible solutions in language that could be transformed into legal commitments. A marked feature of the Brexit negotiations has been London’s struggle to put meaningful proposals on paper, to manage the technical detail of Brexit. EU27 is again being told that proposals are on the way but is anything that London produces in the next six weeks likely to be feasible or realistic? The only hint we have of what the UK might propose relates to an all-island treatment of agriculture and agri-food, an important sector but solutions to this sector would not address the complexity of the Border.
Timing is everything now. There is nothing preventing London submitting credible proposals to Brussels today and having them scrutinised well before the crucial October 17th-18th European Council. Their reluctance to do so stems from a concern that their proposed strategy will not pass muster with EU27 and Boris Johnson would like to go to the European Council in October, preferably after winning an election, as a heroic emissary saving Britain. Johnson completely misreads how the European Council would play out. First, he will not get to negotiate with the other leaders. Just like former prime minister Theresa May, he will have an opportunity to address them but will not sit in a room and negotiate with them. Second, they will not negotiate detailed technical issues unless they have already been signed off and agreed at lower levels. An about-to-be third country will get no special favours or privileges.
In the end, this will come down to domestic politics in the UK. The political turmoil in London is being watched with increasing concern and bemusement in Brussels and across member state capitals. The EU can do very little other than keep channels open and hope that there is a pathway out of what would be a very damaging and disruptive no-deal Brexit. Three questions are crucial. Who will represent the UK at the October European Council? When will the UK election be held? And who will command a majority after that election? We can only watch and wait.
Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman centre for advanced studies at the European University Institute, Florence.