Leaked reports in the United Kingdom’s media last weekend pointed to the potentially catastrophic effects of a hard Brexit — where Britain crashes out of the European Union without any agreement. The scenario was presented in early August to Michael Gove, the minister responsible for Brexit planning in the new cabinet of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and warned on food shortages, chaos at English Channel ports, immediate price rises in supermarkets and severe disruption to services caused by a shortage of fuel.
For the Johnson government that’s gung-ho on making sure the UK leaves come that October 31 deadline, the report was damaging, with ministers insisting that Britain would be ready to leave then and the report was a planning document for a worse-case scenario. Johnson has maintained a line that he is ready and willing to negotiate a new deal with Brussels before the deadline but has done little to reach out to the EU.
The EU27 and the European Commission have consistently maintained their position that the agreement negotiated with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, has been concluded and it is now up to the British parliament to endorse it. The deal cannot be renegotiated, but Brussels is willing to talk about the political agreement, a secondary document that lays out the realities of the main deal that includes the contentious backstop on maintaining an open land border between Northern Ireland and the EU through the Republic of Ireland.
Clearly, something has got to give to avoid the no-deal scenario. On Monday, Johnson wrote to Brussels laying out his objections to the backstop but generally accepting the rest of the agreement. Ironically, Johnson did vote the for agreement before he was elected to 10 Downing Street.
Johnson will have a chance to explain his position and seek some room for political compromise when he meets French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, over the weekend. So far, all of the European leadership has stood united in their collective negotiating position and previous attempts by the British government to divide and conquer Brussels and the EU27 have failed dismally.
With 10 weeks left until Brexit, the political reality facing Johnson is that it is the EU who are negotiating from a position of strength, he faces the nightmare scenario outlined in the leaked paper, and he has a tenuous grip on power in a divided parliament. His sales skills will be severely tested.