There are no “get ready for Brexit” posters blooming on the continent’s biggest crossroads. But Europe nonetheless seems more ready than the British government, which continues to pretend that a no-deal scenario would not be catastrophic for the UK’s economy.
In preparation for 31 October, French customs have launched a “great rehearsal” — “for a month, we will pretend that Brexit has already happened for most businesses, so that we are ready come the end of October,” minister Gérald Darmanin has explained. France has hired 700 additional customs officers and has developed an “intelligent border”, using technology that allows businesses to declare their goods online and scans barcodes at customs. This move is aimed at easing the transition for about 100,000 French businesses dealing with the UK market, but Darmanin is adamant that “any Brexit, soft or hard, will be difficult for the French and European economies”.
France is not alone in stepping up Brexit preparations: the EU, mindful of the political tumult at Westminster, has no choice but to get ready too. The EU is considering categorising a no-deal Brexit as a major natural disaster (alongside earthquakes and flooding), so as to allow the bloc to distribute emergency funds to member states affected by Brexit’s impact on their economy.
That the UK appears intent on running the risk of a no-deal Brexit, which would depress the EU’s economy along with its own, is upsetting enough; but in Brussels exasperation mostly flows from the sheer lack of solutions proposed by the UK to avoid the cliff edge.
“I cannot report any concrete proposals having been made that we have seen,” the EU Commission’s spokesperson Mina Andreeva said in Brussels on Tuesday, adding that a no-deal Brexit remains a “distinct possibility”. Talks are “ongoing,” she said, and the EU and the UK are working on finding alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop — in short, nothing has changed. At the end of her briefing, Andreeva asked: “Anything else that’s not Brexit related?” Her tone was one of exasperation — “I can’t believe we’re still debating this” — a mood that is spreading fast in Brussels.
Some may have rightly doubted that the UK would respect Donald Tusk’s plea to “not waste this time” when he granted an extension in March. But no one in the EU could have predicted that the Brexit conundrum would somehow worsen. Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament, and the ensuing debate over the MPs’ vote against no deal and a possible election, has further thickened the political fog.
Any further Brexit extension wouldn’t be automatic. Emmanuel Macron has spoken out in favour of maintaining the 31 October deadline and the EU has repeated that an extension would need a “credible purpose”, such as a new referendum or an election, to be considered. Another extension isn’t impossible, merely improbable: but so, until recently, were the prorogation of parliament and an October election.
The EU’s standard response to British divisions has been to remind the UK that the ball is in its court: will it finally agree on what it wants? But with British officials pretending that the process in Brussels is more advanced than it is, a serial liar sitting in No 10 and misleading claims on the effects of no deal being shared by Whitehall, the EU is starting to seriously wonder if Britain isn’t simply taking the bloc for a ride.
Why would Europeans bother trying to agree with Johnson on a new version of the deal, now that he has lost his parliamentary majority? Why would they even try, since even Michel Barnier’s Telegraph letter, in which he baldly stated that May’s deal includes the “maximum of flexibility” the EU can offer, did not stop Johnson from claiming last night that “we can get a deal, we can remove the backstop”?
The prorogation of parliament and Johnson’s threat to disregard any law passed by MPs to block no deal have prompted fears for the future of British democracy. “If the rationale was to scare the EU into renegotiation by removing parliament as the final obstacle to no-deal Brexit, the UK government has been gravely misled,” the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee chair Norbert Roettgen has said. “The executive denying parliament its democratic say at this decisive moment cannot be rewarded by the EU.”
Luxembourg’s foreign affairs minister Jean Asselborn has said he is “worried” that “the mother of all parliaments” is “in danger of being sidelined”; former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras described prorogation as “a sad day for the first modern European parliamentary democracy”; editorials in France and Germany have condemned Boris Johnson as a prime minister who “will do anything to get the UK out of the EU”, including “damaging democracy”.
Until now, despite multiple collisions, the EU wanted to believe in the UK’s goodwill, trusting that it would find its way, or at least one way, in the end. This time is over: if British politicians wish to keep holding their Mad Hatter’s tea party, the EU can’t stop them. But it can, and will, be ready when the storm hits.