So Brussels is looking on with dismay at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s gambit of suspending Parliament, which was widely perceived as an anti-democratic maneuver, albeit also a tough negotiating tactic.
Johnson’s move was designed to increase pressure not only on his own Parliament but also on his negotiating partners. He said as much at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday night, several British news media outlets reported, saying it would make a “huge difference” now that they know “these guys really are serious” about Brexit.
That remains to be seen. But it has definitely raised concerns over what many in Brussels regard as Johnson’s undemocratic action.
Brexit is one dimension. “But the far more significant question for Brussels now is what this means for democracy and the strength of our democracies,” Guntram B. Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a Brussels research institution, wrote on Twitter. “How can a PM of a democratic country, elected neither by Parliament nor by citizens, suspend the Parliament that should hold him accountable?”
The European Union, which has seen the rise of illiberal democracies in member states like Hungary and Poland, is somewhat aghast at seeing even a hint of those trends reinforced in a respected system like Britain’s.
“This has wider repercussions,” Wolff said in a subsequent interview. “Brussels and the European Union are always bashed for being undemocratic, but now London makes us ask whether we have a larger problem with democracy.”
Whatever Johnson’s action means for British democracy, it has fortified a growing belief in Brussels that he is not really gunning for a no-deal Brexit. Instead, many believe that he is aiming to nail down a modestly revised withdrawal agreement, one he can get a shocked Parliament to approve before Oct 31, the day that he has vowed Britain will leave the EU, deal or no deal.
In effect, Johnson is trying to play hardball with both Parliament and Brussels, diplomats say, insisting that Oct 31 is a drop-dead date for a Brexit deal and trying to use the newly compressed timetable to force through previously unconsidered compromises.
Even as he vows that Britain will leave the EU on Oct. 31, he is intensifying discussions with Brussels through his Brexit negotiator, David Frost, to find a workable alternative to the infamous backstop — the guarantee against a physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland after Brexit that many believe would threaten the peace agreement in the North.
Critical national leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have expressed a willingness to consider practical, workable alternatives to the backstop, even amid widespread skepticism that any can be devised so quickly, if at all.
At the same time, both London and Brussels insist that their contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit are well advanced and will be ready to absorb much of the shock, assertions that are widely discounted. Most analysts expect considerable economic damage from a cliff-edge split, with major disruptions in trade and commerce, and with Britain suffering the most.
Crunchtime for the EU will come during its scheduled summit meeting in mid-October. By then, Britain’s internal situation may be clearer, and Johnson might have presented a new proposal on the backstop or other aspects of the withdrawal agreement negotiated under his predecessor, Theresa May, and rejected three times by the British Parliament.
Only the national leaders in the European Council can agree to alter the withdrawal deal or an accompanying nonbinding political declaration for the future relationship.
In Brussels on Wednesday, Frost sought to play down Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament and insisted that the British government still wanted to avoid leaving the European Union without a deal.
Still, diplomats say, he did not present any specific proposals to replace the Irish backstop. Frost is expected to return to Brussels next week for more meetings, and talks could gather momentum then with the turmoil in the British Parliament and the looming meeting of all 28 EU heads of government Oct 17.
Some experts have agreed with Johnson that his gambit of suspending Parliament could affect thinking in Brussels, where Parliament has long been seen as a bulwark against a no-deal Brexit. That assumption has been undermined, forcing Brussels to deal more urgently with Johnson’s demands to remove or modify the Irish backstop.
“Mr. Johnson is more likely to get concessions from the EU if they believe Parliament won’t act as a roadblock,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the consultancy Eurasia Group. But the onus is on Johnson and his team to come up with an alternative to the backstop, he said.
“Ultimately, the British government will need to produce a credible alternative to the Irish backstop that both respects the Irish peace process and protects the integrity of the single market,” Rahman said. “Political considerations will be important, but secondary to this.”
Johnson, citing national sovereignty, has said that the backstop must be eliminated and that even a time limit on it would be unacceptable. But some wonder, given his history of shifting positions on a 10-pence, whether he means what he says.
Many European officials think the prime minister’s main objection to the backstop is that it would keep Britain in the bloc’s customs union, preventing London from negotiating a quick trade deal with the United States. That would make a compromise difficult.
“On the EU side, there isn’t much that you can do at this stage,” said Wolff, the director of Bruegel. “You prepare for no-deal, and you’re open to discussing alternatives.” But at the same time, he said, “my gut feeling is that Merkel is willing to discuss some sort of alternative arrangement more than she used to be, so perhaps there’s a bit of an opening there.”
Wolff suggested that something like a 10-year limit on the backstop could be an acceptable compromise, since it would give both sides plenty of time to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal that would make the backstop unnecessary.
Formally, however, the EU is adhering to its long-standing position that the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop, cannot be altered, and that alternatives to the backstop can be discussed only in the transition period after the withdrawal agreement is ratified.
The European Commission repeated Wednesday for the umpteenth time that it did not want to comment on Britain’s internal affairs, continuing to assert that Johnson’s handling of Brexit, including the latest move to suspend Parliament, was not an issue for Brussels.
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