Boris Johnson and the EU: Crash through or just crash
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, July 27, 2019
Boris Johnson, elected overwhelmingly by the grass roots of the British Conservative Party to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister, faces the awesome task of reuniting the British Government to secure Britain’s exit from the European Union, within just three months.
Boris Johnson: Never lost for words.
Boris Johnson is an unlikely Prime Minister. The 55-year-old former mayor of London cuts a bedraggled figure, with a mop of characteristically uncombed blond hair, clothes askew, and a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth while quoting Latin aphorisms that nobody understands.
Yet he has pursued the prime ministership with singular determination.
Theresa May stepped down as leader of the party after she failed three times to win parliamentary support for her agreement with the European Union on the terms of British withdrawal.
Boris Johnson, though a member of the Conservative Government, led the campaign to withdraw from the EU in 2016, then scuttled May’s proposal, describing it as a betrayal of the British people’s vote to leave the union.
Johnson and a group of Tory rebels was supported by the British Labour Party in voting down May’s agreement.
Johnson now faces the task of uniting a fractured party around a new proposal to withdraw from the EU, or leave the EU without a deal in three months time.
His election poses problems for both sides of politics. Johnson is supported by a clear majority of Tory MPs. But, if pro-EU Tories vote against him in Parliament alongside the Labour Party, at the very least they may expedite Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union without a deal – the one outcome they have totally rejected.
If the Labour Party is successful in moving a vote of “no confidence” in Parliament against Johnson, it may bring on an early election, which opinion polls say Labour would decisively lose. In any case, it is a high-risk strategy. It may be that Boris Johnson is anticipating such a move as a means of weakening or even splitting the Labour Party.
The British Labour Party campaigned assiduously against May, and demanded that she call an early election, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeated calls for Johnson to go to an early poll.
But Corbyn has not proposed a vote of “no confidence” against the British Prime Minister, which is the only practical way to bring on an early election, under existing law. In any case, the British Parliament has just gone into the summer recess, and nothing will happen for at least another month.
It remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson’s aggressive anti-EU rhetoric forces the EU to take a more accommodating approach than it did with May.
EU business leaders have long warned of the calamitous consequences for Europe if Britain unilaterally withdraws from the union. They have pointed to the vast imbalance in trade that is currently in favour of the EU, to the damage to joint projects such as Airbus, key parts of which are manufactured in Britain, and to the future status of EU citizens living in the UK.
The UK has a population of about 64 million, of which 2.9 million (5 per cent) are from Europe. They would all require visas to remain in the UK after Brexit, and may not be permitted to stay and work in the UK. Over a million Brits live permanently in other parts of the EU.
Whatever the adverse consequences for Britain of crashing out of the EU without a deal, the consequences for Europe will arguably be even worse.
Belatedly, the leaders of the EU seem to have accepted that. Recent elections in the EU have increased the strength of anti-EU parties across Europe, adding to tensions within the union, and increasing the possibility that other countries may hold referenda on withdrawal.
For most countries in Europe, withdrawal would be considerably more difficult than Britain’s, not just because of the common borders, but also because – unlike Britain, which retained its own currency, the pound sterling – they have adopted the common currency, the euro.
In the meantime, Boris Johnson has moved quickly to appoint a new cabinet that is strongly pro-Brexit. Over half the members of May’s team have been replaced, including the top five jobs.
Apart from Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, they include:
- Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent of our Treasurer) Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, bank executive and son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants.
- Home Secretary Priti Patel, born in London of Indian refugees from Uganda.
- Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, son of a Jewish Czech immigrant, who had resigned last November over May’s Brexit deal.
- Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a former commander in the Scots Guard and supporter of a no-deal Brexit.
There is a strong sense that the European Union’s intransigence in negotiations with Theresa May has now given them Boris Johnson, a far more difficult leader to deal with. And Johnson has made clear that compromise is not a word in his expansive vocabulary.