As they vie to convince Conservative party voters of their truest blue credentials to become the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, much is being said by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt of their determination to lead Britain out of Europe by October 31 with or without a Brexit deal.
Both have gone to great lengths too, to try and convince Remainers in the Conservative party of their respective abilities to convince the EU27 to renegotiate a deal that would be acceptable to most members.
That’s simply not so. The EU27 have said all along that they won’t be reopening the Withdrawal Agreement to more talks. And now, particularly with Tuesday’s deal on the four top candidates to fill the key posts that run the European Union for the next five years, there’s even less chance of that Withdrawal Agreement being changed.
Simply put, there’s all the greater likelihood now that the UK will be crashing out of the EU with no deal — a hard Brexit on Halloween.
For starters, take the fact that European Council president Donald Tusk — the chairman of the group of political leaders from each of the 28 nations — will be replaced by Belgium’s acting Prime Minister, Charles Michel. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool liberal from a nation that is literally on the front line when it comes to Brexit. His nation will feel the effects, along with the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Spain, from that Brexit. He knows what’s at stake by allowing Britain to water down free movement of goods, services and people, and will be doing his utmost to preserve the EU as he knows it — with or without Britain. With or without a deal.
Then there’s Ursula von der Leyen, a centre-right minister and the first women in Germany to serve in the defence portfolio, who is slated to become the next President of the European Commission, the cabinet-like body that runs the EU on a daily basis and forms policy.
It took marathon talks for the EU’s presidents and prime ministers to agree to von der Leyen, with right, left and centre split over the main choices of Manfred Weber from Germany, who has a solid record in the European Parliament; Danish competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who has successfully battled the big tech giants in Europe; and Frans Timmermans, the feisty and anglophile Dutch commissioner who is a rabid anti-Brexiteer.
As it is, von der Leyen appears to be an inspired choice, one who has bought into Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a stronger EU with its own military force. And in that vision of a strong European Union, there is no place for Brexiteers or any others who want to pull the European project asunder.
Timmermans and Vestager should both become vice-presidents of the European Commission when the European Parliament meets to vote on the new appointments. Weber will also become one of the presidents of that parliament in Strasbourg, along with Bulgarian socialist Sergei Stanichev.
Those posts were the most contentious but guarantee that there is no chink in the armour when it comes to altering positions in the face of threats from either Johnson or Hunt as the Brexit clock winds down.
The EU’s top diplomatic job of high representative for security and foreign policy will be filled by Spanish socialist Josep Borrell. He has been president of the European Parliament and knows first-hand the divisive nature of the Brexiteers and others within the Strasbourg parliament who put their narrow national interests ahead of the European project. He will have little in common with either Hunt or Johnson come those days of splendid Britannic isolation after October 31.
Christine Legarde, the former French politician who has been chair of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been selected to head up the European Central Bank. The IMF has published many reports and analysis of the potential dangers and fallout from Brexit. While she would like the UK to leave with a deal, she will be atop the ECB at a critical juncture. Yes, there will be an economic fallout from Brexit, and how she reacts and makes funds available will go a long way towards easing that crisis.
Legarde’s nomination also means that the ECB now has decisive leadership at its top, one with a clear vision for the European project — and how to fund it. Certainly, when it comes to the debt issue facing the southern European nations such as Portugal, Italy and Greece, there will be less room for manoeuvre when it comes to trying to find room under the fiscal covenant — the agreed rules on budgeting.
This whole job-selection process has resulted in the EU leaders striking a balance between gender and political groupings. And Brussels has suddenly become a lot less hospitable for Boris or Jeremy, despite what they say now on the campaign trail.