Ben Lowry: Small glimmer of hope for UK after Boris Johnson’s visits to EU capitals

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday August 21, 2019. She seemed to imply there was a 30-day window for the UK to come up with solutions to the Irish border but later clarified the remark. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday August 21, 2019. She seemed to imply there was a 30-day window for the UK to come up with solutions to the Irish border but later clarified the remark. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
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When Boris Johnson saw Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday his visit appeared to trigger newly flexible comments from her.

The German chancellor referred to talk about there being a 30-day window for the UK to come up with solutions to the Irish border.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Thursday.  Mr Macron struck a conciliatory tone: "We will not find a new Withdrawal Agreement within 30 days that will be very different from the existing one." Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Thursday. Mr Macron struck a conciliatory tone: "We will not find a new Withdrawal Agreement within 30 days that will be very different from the existing one." Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Immediately a British-Irish anti Brexit chorus got to work, as it always does whenever there is any hint of a softening of the EU line.

Nothing had changed, they trilled, the EU was as united as ever in its support of Ireland and the backstop. The UK was as isolated and deluded ever (how the chorus, so sure of its own wisdom and rationality, loves to mock Britain with its fantasies and its unicorns).

To the delight of the chorus, Mrs Merkel on Thursday clarified that her remark was just “an allegory for being able to [get a solution] in a short period of time”.

Since the start of the Brexit process the remaining EU has been remarkably united, given that it is a 27-member block, and British attempts to win over individual countries have failed. Ireland has been put under little, if any, pressure to soften its position.

But this unanimity has no doubt been helped by the fact that EU knows the UK’s vulnerabilities intimately. It sees in detail the divisions within Westminster, and knows what is and is not feasible in terms of trying to stop or limit Brexit.

The UK has not as easily been able to see the EU divisions. Voices within the EU 27 who are sceptical of the approach taken by Brussels have tended not to express their doubts as openly as Remainers in the UK . This discrepancy is hardly surprising — influential figures who might be sympathetic to Britain tend to be (at best) ambivalent about Brexit, so they are not a counterpart to single-minded internal UK opponents of an EU departure.

Mainstream political figures in EU nations who break ranks with the Brexit consensus are pounced upon. See how fast the Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley was contradicted by his own leader when he criticised the Taoiseach for “failing to engage” with Boris Johnson.

But for all the near unanimity of public pronouncements on Brexit by EU leaders, there are bound to be private divisions over tactics.

It is reasonable to say that Brexit no deal will damage the UK more than the EU, because EU trade is a larger share of the UK economy than UK trade is a share of the EU, Mrs Merkel’s body language seemed telling on Wednesday. It was as if we could see someone who is worried about a no deal causing or exacerbating German recession.

I also believe that Germany is more likely than some other EU countries (ie France, with Emmanuel Macron’s sympathetic comments on Irish unity this week) to be privately receptive to some UK arguments that the backstop asks to much of it in terms of treating part of its territory differently. Tom McTague recently reported on the website Politico that a senior EU official “could not believe the British had accepted” the backstop.

On Thursday I talked to a well connected parliamentarian who thought the UK would try to get international customs experts, such as those in the Alternative Arrangements Commission, before German leaders. My contact did not expect a breakthrough – the chance of such experts getting Germany to say that technological solutions to the border were now feasible “might have risen from 20% to 25%”.

My source was expecting Emmanuel Macron to stay 100% in step with Ireland when he met Mr Johnson. If there was any chink in the armour, it would be via Germany.

In fact on Thursday Mr Macron struck a conciliatory tone at the Elysee Palace: “We will not find a new Withdrawal Agreement within 30 days that will be very different from the existing one.”

That could suggest the EU might even reopen the deal and make tweaks (as opposed to just changing the non binding Political Declaration or giving fresh assurances).

Perhaps the Germans and French are just trying to look reasonable ahead of no deal.

Perhaps Boris Johnson is just talking tough. But his letter this week to Donald Tusk (much mocked by the chorus) was notable. London is now challenging the idea that only nationalists fear for the integrity of the Belfast Agreement. The letter bluntly rejected Northern Ireland becoming “gradually detached from the UK economy in across a very broad range of areas”.

Pitifully few business leaders in NI have made that point.

It will be harder for Mr Johnson to retreat from that letter than to retreat from his fierce criticism of the backstop at last year’s DUP conference (he then voted for it).

Perhaps, given Mr Johnson’s track record, Berlin and Paris see his letter as bluster. Or perhaps one or both capitals is rattled.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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