Brussels: Britain's incoming prime minister Boris Johnson campaigned for Brexit with the rhetorical flourishes that have made him a thorn in the side of the European Union for much of his career in journalism and politics.
But as he prepares to take office this week, European officials were keen to reinforce the message that Britain's new leader will face the same tricky challenges as his predecessor in navigating Britain's departure from the EU, currently set for 31 October.
Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission, reacted to the British leadership announcement Tuesday by predicting there would be "challenging times ahead". Britain's incoming premier, who has compared the EU to Hitler, says the deal signed by his predecessor Theresa May is unacceptable and must be renegotiated.
Senior EU officials insist day-after-day — and did so again on Tuesday as Johnson was elected —that the existing Brexit deal is the best and only one available. If the stand-off continues, Britain will leave the European Union with no transition period nor any formal arrangements to avoid economic chaos in a "no-deal" Brexit.
"The United Kingdom reached an agreement with the European Union and the European Union will stick to that agreement," commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said Tuesday. Johnson has used his role as a rebel leader to secure the keys to Number 10 and he is adamant that Britain will leave on 31 October, "do or die".
If Brussels wants to avoid a breakdown, he argues, it will have to re-open divorce negotiations and, in particular, abandon the so-called "Irish backstop". This is the clause in the withdrawal treaty that states Britain will remain in the EU customs union after Brexit if no way is found to keep the border open with EU member Ireland.
Johnson has dubbed this a ploy to keep Britain in a form of union, but backstop supporters insist it is a vital safeguard to preserve peace on the island of Ireland. This week he used his weekly column for The Daily Telegraph newspaper to argue that a new unspecified technological fix could avoid a hard border.
"They went to the Moon 50 years ago. Surely today we can solve the logistical issues of the Irish border," he wrote. Observers say that the new British leader may become more pragmatic once in power.
In an analysis of the challenges ahead, the Eurasia Group consultancy said it expects Johnson to take a more "conciliatory approach, in the hope he can strike a deal, as the reality of the government dawns".
Ireland under the bus?
On 25 November, May and the other 27 EU leaders signed the Withdrawal Agreement, a painstakingly negotiated treaty governing Britain's departure. It was, EU president Jean-Claude Juncker and May both declared, the "best and only" solution to the crisis.
But on her return to Westminster, May was ambushed by hardline eurosceptic MPs from her own party, Johnson among them, and the deal was never ratified. Some of Johnson's supporters suggest his force of character alone could bump the EU into new talks. But in Brussels, both publicly and privately, officials insist not.
"We look forward to working constructively with PM Boris Johnson when he takes office, to facilitate the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and achieve an orderly Brexit," chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Twitter after the Conservative Party announced Johnson's election.
Even if Barnier wanted to reopen his negotiations, he would need a mandate from the other 27 EU leaders to do so, and none have yet broken ranks to suggest this. Commentators in London seize on occasional suggestions that Berlin or Warsaw might be more flexible than, say, Paris — but EU officials say they have missed the point.
"The EU stands in solidarity with the Irish," a European diplomat told AFP. "There are no hints that Dublin wants to change its position. And we will not throw the Irish under the bus." In short, there is no way that EU leaders will abandon a loyal member state like Ireland to accommodate a Britain that in their view is hell-bent on self-harm.
"All these ideas might fly in a fantasy world. In real world terms they mean no-deal with all its devastating consequences," another European diplomat said. "If that's what Britain wants, it'll get it."
Some may hope the change in guard at the top of the EU opens up opportunities for compromise, but von der Leyen does not take over until 1 November, the day after Brexit. And the European Parliament's new Brexit steering committee will meet on Wednesday, still under its previous chair, the former Belgian premier and a bugbear of Brexiteers, Guy Verhofstadt.
Verhofstadt's group will meet with Barnier "to respond to Boris Johnson's election". "Looking forward to defending the interest of all Europeans," he tweeted.
Updated Date: Jul 24, 2019 09:44:46 IST