EU nudges Boris Johnson closer to no-deal Brexit
President-in-waiting of the European Commission closes door on renegotiation of Irish backstop
The woman nominated to lead the European Commission has signalled she would not reopen Brexit talks, dealing a blow to Boris Johnson’s negotiating strategy and raising the chances of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal at the end of October.
At a hearing of MEPs in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen vowed to defend the “precious” and “important” Irish backstop, the insurance mechanism much-hated by Brexiteers, “dashing hopes in Westminster that the EU would use the leadership handover to adjust its stance”, says The Independent.
Describing herself as a “Remainer”, she said: “I think it’s a good deal, but it is your responsibility and your noble task to sort this out,” in her first official comments on Brexit since she was selected to replace Jean-Claude Junker.
More of an Anglophile than her predecessor, she hinted at the possibility of a partial reset in UK-EU relations if she takes office. “But that will not stretch to bending the EU’s red lines, designed to protect the single market from British cherry-picking, or to renegotiating the withdrawal agreement,” says James Crisp in The Daily Telegraph.
The fact that the backstop was specifically singled out as an inviolable red line “will be a blow to Boris Johnson’s hopes of renegotiating a deal without the controversial clause that would tie Britain into a bare-bones customs union with the EU to prevent a hard border on Ireland”, he adds.
With a poll of members indicating Johnson, who has vowed to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October come what may, may have gathered enough votes to have won the Tory leadership race already, it appears the party establishment is preparing to row in behind him and back a no deal.
Former diehard Remainer Amber Rudd signalled a dramatic public u-turn, telling TalkRadio she had changed her mind on the defining issue of the day.
“Both candidates have said that no deal is part of the armoury going forward, and I have accepted that,” she said.
Some have accused her of putting her own career above the interests of the nation. It follows an interview with ConservativeHome last month in which Johnson said that anyone who wanted to serve in his cabinet would have to agree to support the UK leaving the EU with no deal on 31 October if necessary.
The Guardian says “Rudd’s change of heart makes her one of a string of Tories who have hardened their Brexit positions in recent weeks in order to back Johnson”.
Matt Hancock, a former leadership candidate, quickly swung behind the frontrunner after dropping out of the contest, while George Freeman, a Tory moderate, was asked by his former colleague Heidi Allen if he had “taken leave of his senses” by coming out strongly for Johnson.
As the likelihood of no deal seems to rise, the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney warned that “extensive and expensive” preparations by banks, other businesses and the authorities, would not prevent a “major economic shock” to Britain if it crashed out of the block.
The Bank’s half-yearly financial stability report also warns of a negative impact on consumers and businesses from a likely “sharp” adjustment in the sterling exchange rate and in the prices of other UK assets following a disorderly Brexit.
The pound has already lost 15% of its value since the start of 2016 against a basket of currencies that includes the dollar and the euro.
With attention focused on the Irish border problem, Northern Ireland’s civil service has warned that a no-deal exit would have a deep and long-lasting impact on the region’s economy and could cause the loss of 40,000 jobs.
Reuters reports that Northern Ireland “is widely seen as the most exposed region of the United Kingdom to economic disruption by Brexit due to its land border with EU member the Republic of Ireland”. The civil service has estimated a no-deal exit would could cut the region’s exports to the rest of Ireland by up to 19%.
Johnson’s team will be hoping that their man’s firm commitment to leaving by Halloween come what may, combined with doom-laden warnings about the impact of no deal and fears of a hard Irish border will force the EU into vital concessions that he can take back to Westminster to win over MPs.
However, while EU leaders appear divided on the length of an extension, their red lines, especially on the Irish backstop, remain as firm as ever.
“Once the dust on the EU’s game of musical chairs settles, whoever the next prime minister is will find himself confronted with different faces but the same problems” says Crisp.