Brussels has sounded a warning that Boris Johnson’s familiar use of “false promises, pseudo-patriotism and foreigner-bashing” to win the keys to Downing Street is locking Britain into a no-deal Brexit.
In a withering attack on the Conservative leadership frontrunner, Guy Verhofstadt dismissed the idea that he could dump Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, withhold payment of the UK’s £39bn divorce bill and still negotiate a free-trade deal in Brussels as a “myth”. And he said that, years after the referendum, Johnson was “a man who continues to dissemble, exaggerate and disinform”.
Verhofstadt’s assessment, which is shared by most European officials, is the most forceful European intervention so far into the Tories’ leadership election. In an article published by the Project Syndicate website and the Guardian, the former prime minister of Belgium concludes that Johnson and his rival, Jeremy Hunt, who also claims to be able to to renegotiate the Brexit deal, have “learned nothing whatsoever” from the last two years.
The EU has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate the agreement and that the UK will crash out unless the House of Commons ratifies the full package, including the protocol containing the Irish backstop for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But Johnson has said he believes that with “positive energy” he will be able to either persuade Brussels to ditch the backstop, which would otherwise keep the UK in a customs union until another border solution is found, or agree to a “standstill” in current relations through article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade.
The latter claim has been described as “not true” by the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, among others. He pointed out article 24 requires EU agreement, which Brussels has said it will not give.
EU officials and diplomats close to the last two years of talks have looked on aghast at the hardening of Johnson’s positions around what they regard as unfeasible proposals.
Sources echoed Verhofstadt’s concerns on Thursday, saying that they feared an early visit to Brussels by Johnson, on becoming prime minister, could lock both sides into a no-deal Brexit.
Officials said it would be desirable for Johnson to instead tour the EU capitals in order to gain a sense of what might be realistic before seeking concessions.
One EU diplomat said there would be a natural desire to give a new prime minister a hearing but that there increasingly seemed little hope of reaching an accommodation.
“Is the withdrawal agreement really dead?” asked one. “It’s crazy.”
“You could possibly foresee add-ons to the deal to offer aspirational timelines for getting out of the Irish backstop,” said the source. “Maybe he could sell it at home. But Johnson is backing himself more into a corner every day.”
EU diplomats said they recognised that much of Johnson’s positioning was designed to put the blame on the bloc for a no-deal exit.
One diplomat said: “Without the withdrawal treaty there will be no standstill transition. It is in the draft treaty, nowhere else. The idea that the EU would stand by as Britain tears up a painstakingly negotiated treaty and then say, ‘Hey have a transition anyway,’ is frankly ridiculous.
“Is Johnson serious? I hope he understands what he’s on about because no else does.
“It is nonsense and is presumably meant to be incomprehensible for the purposes of his campaign unless he is completely divorced from reality.”
In his article, Verhofstadt described Johnson in similar terms, saying that he appeared to be unable to stop spreading “untruths”.
He added: “Chief among them is the myth that Britain can tear up the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated with the EU, withhold its financial commitments to the bloc and simultaneously start negotiating free-trade deals.
“To Johnson’s followers, however, he is more prophet than politician: only he can deliver a mythical ‘true Brexit’ that will deliver the prosperity promised during the referendum campaign.
“As is often the case with populists, reality does not square with Johnson’s ensorcelling combination of false promises, pseudo-patriotism and foreigner-bashing.
“He and his fellow Brexiteers speak of a ‘global Britain’ that will trade freely with the rest of the world, even as they drag their country down a path strewn with uprooted trade ties and substantial new barriers to commerce.”
The EU is due to announce the finalising of a trade deal with the Mercosur bloc – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – that will reduce tariffs on European products being exported to those countries.
The EU has been keen to burnish its trade credentials after enjoying a purple patch of negotiations, including with Japan, with which it has struck the world’s largest bilateral free-trade deal.
“With Johnson likely taking power in late July, Europe will have offered still more proof that Brexit is not only unnecessary but also detrimental to Britain’s economic interests,” Verhofstadt writes. “The ‘buccaneering’ Brexiteers might then finally have to explain what it is they’re still complaining about.”
Boris Johnson’s foreigner-bashing tying UK to no-deal Brexit, says Brussels – The Guardian