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8 October 2019

What Boris Johnson’s row with Angela Merkel really means

Despite the spin, the conversation that Downing Street is using as a pretence to collapse negotiations is neither new nor surprising.

By Patrick Maguire

Are meaningful talks on Brexit finished not just before 31 October, but for good? That’s what Downing Street would have us believe after a purportedly explosive call between Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel this morning. 

In No 10’s telling, the conversation saw the German chancellor reveal the 27 EU member states’ “new position” – that Northern Ireland must remain in a customs union and in full alignment with EU regulations “forever” – and in effect rule out any deal at any time.

Says a self-styled Downing Street source: 

“The call with Merkel showed the EU has adopted a new position. She made clear a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely and she thinks the EU has a veto on us leaving the customs union. Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever. 

“She said that Ireland is the government’s special problem and Ireland must have at least have a veto on NI leaving. Merkel said that the PM should tell Northern Ireland that it must stay in full alignment forever, but that even this would not eliminate customs issues. 

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“It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways. If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also made clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.”

The briefing poses many questions, chief among them: did Angela Merkel really say any of those things? And like that?

It is of course possible that Merkel has started conducting her conversations with Johnson in the very specifically belligerent tone that he believes helps him domestically. But ask anyone in any European capital who has ever so much as been in the same room as the chancellor, and they will tell you that the reported remarks are so uncharacteristic as to barely resemble her. “I am confident that Angela Merkel has never spoken like that in her life,” says one EU27 diplomat.

What of the substance? Despite the melodramatic framing, there is nothing new or surprising about Merkel’s remarks. Since the UK agreed not to impose any new checks or infrastructure on the island of Ireland in December 2017, it has always been the case that its government faces a choice between either a customs or regulatory border in the Irish Sea, both, or a soft Brexit for both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is not a “new position”, but is in fact still notionally UK government policy. And as for “forever”, there has always been provision to transition to alternative arrangements on the border, but they do not exist.

As long as any prime minister ignores this choice – as Johnson has chosen to – then of course a deal is not going to happen. That isn’t to say that leaning into it solves anything at Westminster, as Theresa May’s calamitous premiership demonstrated – the 2017 parliament has more or less conclusively shown that it won’t wear any of those three options. But an accord with the EU27 is impossible as long as the UK refuses to engage on the terms to which, as far as Dublin and Brussels is concerned, it has already agreed.

That, more than anything Angela Merkel has said today, is the reason there will be no deal before 31 October. Ever since the Benn Act passed last month, it was clear to Brussels, Dublin, and sensible eyes in Whitehall that there would be neither any impetus nor likelihood of meaningful movement towards a deal unless the UK acknowledged the choice before it on customs. 

The proposals that the government put forward last week proved that there was no chance of that happening, at least this side of Halloween and an election. With an extension inevitable – as even Dominic Cummings now acknowledges – playing what Donald Tusk has called a “stupid blame game” and ostentatiously collapsing talks that were never going to offer anything approaching a conclusion before this month’s EU Council summit was always the likeliest course of action for Johnson. And so it has proved.