The Brief, powered by amfori – A gamble too far

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL]

It’s the wise gambler who knows when his luck is about to run out. Boris Johnson always assumes that his luck is in and, so far, his faith has been rewarded. But his threat to break the Withdrawal Agreement looks like a gamble too far.

Tabling the bill days after upping the pressure on the EU to make further concessions looks like little more than the crudest attempt of blackmail.

For the moment, the gambit hasn’t worked. The EU hasn’t blinked; threatening legal action, the Commission could hardly have been sterner on Thursday evening.

There had been a few hints that unity among member states behind chief negotiator Michel Barnier was starting to waver. But the Irish question is only likely to reinforce unity among the EU-27.

The German ambassador in London, a key bellwether of European opinion, tweeted that he had never seen “such a fast, intentional and profound deterioration of a negotiation.”

Having openly admitted that the government intends to break the law, as

After Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis openly admitted on Tuesday (8 September) that the government intends to break the law, it is almost impossible for Johnson to claim any moral high ground.

Breaking an international treaty – even with the dreaded EU – goes against the notion of ‘fair play’ that the British, perhaps spuriously, attribute to themselves.

Last autumn when Johnson went all in by proroguing the UK Parliament and then demanding an election, he was helped by the hubris and tactical ineptitude of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, who enthusiastically agreed to a poll despite the numbers always being against them.

This time, if the next six weeks do not deliver a new trade deal, there is every chance that the Internal Market Bill won’t make it into law before the end of the year.

It would get through the House of Commons – Johnson’s 80 seat majority will make sure of that, even if some, like ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, vote against it.

But the bill got a hostile response in the House of Lords on Thursday (10 September), even from the likes of former Tory leader Michael Howard, himself a staunch Eurosceptic. Without a majority in the Lords – who could delay the bill by a year – Johnson could leave Northern Ireland in legal no-man’s land.

Johnson also risks being trapped in a pincer between the hard Brexiteers, who would like to completely tear up the Withdrawal Agreement, and the remaining Tory moderates, who are horrified that their prime minister would flagrantly break an ‘oven-ready’ treaty that he negotiated, campaigned on and signed less than a year ago.

Still, if Johnson has badly overplayed his hand, it won’t cost him his government any time soon. Indeed, many Tory lawmakers, including most of the hard-Brexit supporting MPs newly elected in 2019, will be comfortable with a ‘no deal’ scenario.

But the country is unlikely to be so sanguine about more broken promises and the hefty economic costs of trade tariffs and quotas in the midst of a pandemic that has wiped 10% off the national economy.

At some point, people will start to ask the question: wasn’t this supposed to be ‘the easiest trade deal in history’?

The Roundup

The European Commission intends to act as a strong geopolitical player at next week’s EU-China video meeting. But to do so, Europe must extend its ‘digital sovereignty’, also with regards to China.

Unless Serbia and Kosovo normalise their relations, the Western Balkans will remain vulnerable to foreign influence coming from the East, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti warned MEPs on the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Historic figure Gotse Delchev, considered as a national hero both in Bulgaria and North Macedonia, now appears to stand in the way of Skopje’s EU path. 

French energy company Engie is teaming up with aerospace firm the Ariane Group to steal a march on its rivals in the hydrogen production business, by drawing on expertise gained through Europe’s space programme.

The finance ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain called on the European Commission to include “strong rules” in its upcoming cryptocurrency proposal, in particular for global digital tokens like Facebook’s Libra.

Poland moved a step closer to formally endorsing the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal this week when its climate ministry presented an update of the country’s 2040 energy roadmap during an online event hosted by EURACTIV.

The European Parliament’s environment committee has voted for a new EU-wide target to reduce carbon emissions 60% by 2030, setting the stage for tough negotiations with EU countries and the European Commission, which is expected to propose a 55% goal next week.

France and Germany intend to become the world champions for green hydrogen together and are already planning to set up a “gigafactory” with state support. But the two could butt heads over nuclear power.

Look out for…

  • EU-China leaders meeting on Monday
  • European Parliament’s plenary week

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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