New Tory Leader Must Be Honest With Electorate, Says David Miliband
As the European Union plots how to respond to a prime minister Boris Johnson, officials are aiming to keep him away from Brussels for as long as possible.
Johnson, the front-runner in the race to replace Theresa May, has promised that if he becomes prime minister next month, he would quickly start work renegotiating the Brexit deal in time to leave the bloc on Oct. 31.
But in Brussels, officials have a different idea, according to three people familiar with the situation.
Diplomats plan to advise the U.K. that Johnson shouldn’t try to negotiate with the bloc until after his party’s annual convention in early October. Their concern is that if the bloc offers the minor concessions it has in mind too soon, they could get shot down at party conference, where the new prime minister would be making his first appearance before the overwhelmingly pro-Brexit grassroots supporters.
They want to make one shot at getting the deal over the line, and want to do so at a time when it’s got the best chance of working, the people said. EU officials were burned last time around, offering small concessions to May that weren’t enough to get the much-hated deal through a divided Parliament.
May failed three times to get it ratified, and both candidates vying to replace her are vowing to redraft at least the most controversial bit of the deal -- the so-called Irish backstop.
If Johnson is keen to press on with some Brexit diplomacy, EU officials will suggest he goes on a tour of European capitals instead, in the hope it will help give him a realistic idea of the kind of minor tweaks the bloc is willing to offer, the officials said. This wouldn’t be an opportunity for negotiations -- which are centralized in Brussels -- but for an exchange of views.
Since even before Brexit talks started two years ago, behind the scenes the two sets of negotiators often coordinated on the choreography of reaching a deal. The latest plans indicate the EU is hoping that doesn’t change under a Johnson premiership.
Officials take for granted that Brexit will be delayed again if Johnson is serious about revising the agreement -- as his recent rhetoric suggests.
What’s on Offer
The EU isn’t prepared to renegotiate the deal but it could offer sweeteners to make it more palatable, including a wholesale rewrite of the non-binding political declaration on future trading ties, which sits alongside the binding divorce deal.
EU leaders met in Brussels on Friday but discussed Brexit only briefly. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said leaders were unanimous that the withdrawal deal can’t be reopened. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he looked forward to discussing with the new prime minister ideas for changing the political declaration.
"The absolute position of the EU is that withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be reopened, the political declaration can be amended," he told reporters.
Johnson was instrumental in the Brexit referendum campaign and European leaders haven’t forgotten. They see him as a populist who has spent decades trying to undermine the European project, first as a journalist and then as a politician. But at the summit on Friday, several leaders said they looked forward to working with the new prime minister.
Johnson has softened his tone in recent days, describing European counterparts as "friends," and saying that while he’s determined to leave on Oct. 31 with or without a deal, he wants to do so on terms that "protect the U.K. and protect the EU as well."
Over the next month he will be fighting Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in a run-off in which the Conservative Party’s 160,000 grassroots members will pick the winner in the week of July 22.