Boris Johnson’s nightmare in Luxembourg was more than just a public embarrassment delivered at the hands of the Grand Duchy’s Xavier Bettel.
The FT on Wednesday morning reports on a chastening encounter over lunch between Mr Johnson, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker, which one official described as a “penny dropping” moment for the prime minister over what it really means to replace the Irish backstop.
According to an account of the meeting, the prime minister was told by his EU counterparts in no uncertain terms that the UK’s plan to replace the backstop by allowing Northern Ireland to stick to common EU rules on food and livestock (known as SPS) was not enough to prevent customs checks on the vast majority of goods that cross the Irish border.
At that point, a befuddled Mr Johnson turned to David Frost, his chief negotiator, and Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary, and said: “So you’re telling me the SPS plan doesn’t solve the customs problem?”
The exchange, according to one EU official, was part of an abrupt “learning curve” for Mr Johnson in his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Barnier and Mr Juncker since he took office.
Another official describes the prime minister gradually “slumping” in his chair as the reality of the UK’s negotiating position and the limited time left to strike an agreement dawned on him. “He wasn’t used to hearing it”, added the official.
Mr Juncker told his college of commissioners in Strasbourg on Tuesday that the Luxembourg lunch was the first time that “Boris Johnson understood the meaning of the single market”. A Number 10 official rejected descriptions of the lunch as “nonsense”.
Although the EU has repeated ad nauseam that the UK’s partial solution to customs checks is not a credible alternative to the legally operational backstop, that message does not seemed to have been relayed to Number 10.
It has led plenty in Brussels to become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of Mr Johnson finding a way to satisfy the EU and pass any deal through his suspended parliament.
EU officials were also left questioning whether Mr Frost, Mr Johnson’s “sherpa” who has led talks in Brussels for the last month, has the trust of the prime minister. “We don’t know if he has the mandate to agree anything”, said one.
Expect more frustration in Strasbourg on Wednesday when Mr Barnier and Mr Juncker debrief MEPs on the state of play two days after the Luxembourg debacle.
Manfred Weber, leader of the centre-right conservative group in the parliament, went on a Bettel-esque attack on Tuesday, hitting out at Mr Johnson’s self-styled “Hulk” comparisons and accusing him of “provoking” anti-Brexit forces and British MPs.
“If a British prime minister is very provocative in the positions he adopts, then he shouldn’t be surprised if there are protest movements and demonstrations”, said Weber. “We are not in a superhero comic book. We are talking about uncertainty for millions of people”.
Graphic du jour: droning out
A devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s main oil installations has put the focus back on how governments can protect themselves and their most valuable natural assets from rogue drone technology. The FT has more.
A continent of offence
Manfred Weber’s attempted defence of Ursula von der Leyen’s “Commissioner in charge of our European way of life” has gone down badly. The German MEP was accused by one fellow MEP of being a “clueless, outmoded, reactionary fool” after he questioned why anyone would want to live a “Chinese or African” way of life (Politico):
“Is there someone in this room who wants to live the Chinese way of life, or the African way of life, or the American way of life? I want to live the European way of life”
Back to the people
Spain is heading for a fourth general election in four years after acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez failed to form a parliamentary alliance that could keep his minority government in power. El Mundo reports that the decision to go to elections on November 10 was taken by Spain’s king, Felipe VI after seven hours of talks with party leaders. Mr Sánchez has called on voters to deliver a “clearer” mandate that would lead to a period of “stability and calm”.
The FT reports on outrage in the European Parliament at a senior EU banking regulator switching jobs to become one of the top lobbyists for the banking industry in Brussels. Paul Tang, a Dutch centre-left MEP, says the revolving door is “completely inappropriate and stupid for both sides”.
Andrew Duff writing for the European Policy Centre has come up with an eminently fudge-able solution to the Brexit impasse: use the transition period to avoid the backstop, ditch the political declaration altogether and allow Stormont a seat on any post-Brexit governance committee. In other news, Chris Giles reports that Mark Carney could be offered a Brextension at the Bank of England if the October 31 exit date does not materialise.
Former centre-left Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi has announced the formation of a breakaway centrist party called “Italia viva” (Italy Lives) for voters who want to “believe” in politics again. He tells La Repubblica:
“The twentieth-century party is no longer working. I want to do something new, cheerful and amusing, but one that focuses on problems.”
Rutte’s rolling in cash
The Dutch government has unveiled a blitz of tax cuts for households and workers in its latest 2020 budget. Mark Rutte tells journalists it’s time for the country to drop its “fetish” over balanced budgets and celebrate some of the lowest public debt levels of any economy in Europe. (FT, Volkskrant).
Mr Juncker has revived historical enmity between Belgium’s Flemish and French speaking communities by claiming that francophones are not welcome in the country’s beach resorts. (The Telegraph)
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