Media  Global Economy  2019.10.03

The outcome of Brexit that both Johnson and Macron want

The article was originally posted on RONZA on September 12, 2019
The UK is a side player, the EU plays the central role

On September 11, major Japanese newspapers posted at the same time analyses and commentaries on Brexit. The UK Parliament passed a Brexit delay law that compels Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask the European Union (EU) for a three-month Brexit deadline extension from the end of October to January if no deal is agreed on Brexit conditions. Furthermore, the Parliament twice rejected the motion tabled by Prime Minister Johnson to call for a snap election with the intention of having the Brexit delay law disapproved in the new Parliamentary session. As a result, the dominant view is that Prime Minister Johnson, who insists on leaving the EU at the end of October, has no measures left and is bogged down in the mire.

The British media are said to dwell on various scenarios, for example that Prime Minister Johnson would ignore the Brexit delay law, or that, while making a request for an extension, he would nullify the Brexit delay by attaching a letter stating that he himself has no intention of postponing the withdrawal.

However, it is doubtful whether Prime Minister Johnson would in fact adopt these ingenious scenarios. Should Prime Minister Johnson adopt any of them, the legitimacy of the government would be questioned, placing himself at a great disadvantage in the next election.

Moreover, these reports are mostly from a UK perspective. As for the EU, the other concerned party, most articles view that the EU, while admitting that another extension would be difficult, would accept the Brexit delay on condition that a general election or a national referendum is held to avoid a no-deal Brexit. In brief, the newspapers write as though the EU is the side player. They persistently treat Britain as playing the central role.

Only the Asahi Shimbun has written an outstanding article focusing on the EU, not the UK. Moreover, it takes a completely different view from other newspapers seeing the EU as having "a lingering mood to accept a no-deal Brexit."

This is what I have repeatedly been advocating in "RONZA." It seems that I have finally run into an article that logically analyzes and explains Brexit from among the major Japanese newspapers.

Certainly, the confusion and uncertainty of the UK government and Parliament are interesting for the audience to watch and are often taken up in articles. The unique character of Boris Johnson has also come on stage. However, it was the EU that has continued to take the lead in drafting the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with Former Prime Minister Theresa May.

The UK Parliament rejected the draft Withdrawal Agreement, to which Former Prime Minister May and the EU agreed, three times on account of EU's insistence to append the backstop arrangement (a safety-net provision to prevent the Northern Ireland conflict from re-erupting by placing the entire UK under the EU Customs Union until a workable arrangement is found to ensure that there will be no border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). From an objective view, the lead role is played by the EU. The UK is at best the second lead or side player.

As I mentioned in the article "Is a no-deal Brexit frightening?," "Even from a logical point of view, the only viable option is a no-deal Brexit. (snip) The EU has no intention to make any concessions on material issues, such as the revision or withdrawal of the backstop arrangement, as demanded by Brexit hardliners in the UK. In short, there will be no draft agreement which convinces both the UK and the EU. Or, conversely, if there is no 'Brexit with a deal,' the remaining option is a 'no-deal Brexit'."

Prime Minister Johnson only pretends to negotiate with the EU

Prime Minister Johnson has not made any formal negotiations with the EU, as was disclosed by MP Amber Rudd, who resigned from her position as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on September 7.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar revealed on September 9 that he has not received any concrete alternative proposals that do not need border controls from Prime Minister Johnson, who demands to modify the backstop arrangement (from the Asahi Shimbun of September 11).

According to a Bloomberg reporter based in the EU capital Brussels, UK representatives make a visit to Brussels twice a week and meet with the EU persons in charge, but the EU persons in charge are saying that the visits are a "farce," "useless," and that the representatives "just sit there" (from the Japan Times of September 10). In other words, Prime Minister Johnson is fully aware that it is not possible to revise the draft Withdrawal Agreement to which Former Prime Minister May and the EU agreed, and just pretends to negotiate with the EU. Then, now that the Brexit delay law has been ratified, what is Prime Minister Johnson seeking?

I mentioned in the article "Is a no-deal Brexit frightening?" as follows: "Even if the conflict erupts as the result of a no-deal Brexit involving no backstop arrangement, it will occur in the UK territory including Northern Ireland, not in EU territory. It was Macron (French President) who made Donald Tusk, Permanent President of the European Council (who proposed an extension of up to one year), agree to the short extension until October 31 (half the proposed extension). He will not mind if the UK leaves the EU without any deal."

The only condition for the EU to accept UK's request of a Brexit delay is to obtain assurances that the UK Parliament will approve the draft Withdrawal Agreement to which Former Prime Minister May and the EU agreed. However, neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party can make such a promise, while the Parliament has rejected the draft Agreement three times in the past. Prime Minister Johnson no longer has a majority in the House of Commons, after having expelled 21 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Brexit delay law and with additional breakaway members. Even if he promised a national referendum, the Brexit quagmire would only be repeated should there be more breakaway members.

The EU has no intention of going along with such a predicament.

The EU's decision making requires unanimous consent of all member states. As long as French President Emmanuel Macron, who now holds a leading position in the EU, opposes a further extension, the EU will reject the Brexit delay no matter how much the UK requests it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave sympathy to Former Prime Minister May but will probably not rescue Johnson, who maintains an anti-EU stance. In addition, Merkel, whose centripetal force has weakened, can no longer restrain Macron.

Isn't this exactly what Prime Minister Johnson seeks?

The UK will ask the EU for a Brexit delay according to the law passed by the UK Parliament. However, the EU will reject it. The UK will automatically withdraw from the EU at the end of October. Of course, it will be a no-deal Brexit without the backstop arrangement.

The outcome both Johnson and Macron want

For Macron, the impact of Brexit may be minimized if Scotland, where there are many anti-Brexit campaigners, breaks away from the UK and joins the EU. If Northern Ireland, where there are similarly many anti-Brexit campaigners, should also break away from the UK and unify with the Republic of Ireland, the Irish border control issue would no longer exist. The backstop arrangement would not be necessary. The EU would only have to conclude a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the UK without the backstop arrangement.

The UK Parliament would not oppose the FTA, thinking that the UK has recovered its sovereignty from the EU. It would be an easy profit for Macron if the City of London, which has served as the world's financial hub, were to decline in power and some of its functions shift to Paris.

Johnson will ask the EU for a Brexit delay, but the EU led by Macron will reject it. This is the very trump card that Johnson is contemplating. Moreover, it is logical and elegantly simple.

The Asahi Shimbun had also indicated this last scenario. Other newspapers seemed far too obsessed with the desire to avoid the no-deal Brexit that they did not notice this simple scenario.