When I was younger, even just 10 years ago, the ‘silly season’ was a specific time of year defined by the Westminster summer parliamentary recess. A politician or celebrity would be photographed in ill-fitting swimming trunks (who can forget the images of President Putin on a horse at the beginning of his summer holidays), a cow would go on the run, or a fake Great White shark would be spotted off the coast of Cornwall. This year, the season was started by our new Prime Minister being booed and heckled on his tour of the nations of the UK, and the suggestion that thousands of lambs might metaphorically and actually be put to the slaughter.
Going into recess from the European Parliament, it feels anything but silly this year. On the contrary, it feels like we may be entering a dangerous endgame in the Brexit debacle. A reckless game of chicken in which people’s livelihoods, their jobs and even the peace that many of us worked for, are thrown aside in pursuit of Brexit at all costs. A decision which would hit the North East harder than any other UK region.
With Boris Johnson crowned leader of the Conservative Party and using every opportunity to ramp up the rhetoric about exiting the EU without a divorce agreement, no one really knows if this is a textbook ‘crazy man’ negotiating tactic designed to make other countries think we really will commit economic suicide in order to win concessions, or the silly season incarnate.
Johnson is notorious in Brussels from his days as a Daily Telegraph reporter who specialised in making up Euro-myths, once claiming that the EU had banned prawn cocktail crisps and on another occasion gleefully stating that the EU was about to introduce a ‘banana police force’ to monitor bendy bananas. So it isn’t altogether surprising that in Brussels the reaction has been remarkably muted. The immediate forming of a so called ‘war cabinet' and tough talking has produced a collective sigh and united calm from the EU’s other 27 member states. As has Johnson’s assertion that negotiations wouldn’t restart until the Irish backstop was removed from the table, while simultaneously his advisors toured European Parliament offices evaluating the scope for negotiations.
There is a suspicion that Johnson’s strategy is to act erratically until the wire in October in the misapprehension that the EU always blinks at the last minute. However my feeling from discussions inside the European Parliament is that patience is running thin and who can blame them?
There is no appetite among the EU27 to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement which is effectively a three-part divorce agreement: a divvying up of money and assets, guaranteeing the rights of citizens who have crossed the Channel in both directions thanks to free movement, and protecting the EU-UK legal responsibilities included in the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement. The only movement on the backstop would likely be a return to the EU’s first proposal of an Ireland-only backstop, which the DUP would oppose virulently. The best Johnson can hope for is cosmetic changes and rebranding.
It was striking that Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor Commission President-elect Ursula Von den Leyen made a big point ahead of her election in July of a proposal to create a new unemployment benefit reinsurance scheme which could be deployed in the case of economic problems affecting EU countries, some more acutely than others. Her example was an economic shock from a no-deal Brexit.
In my role as a British MEP, having a foot on either side of the Brexit negotiations has provided valuable insights into how these tactics are perceived by our neighbours over the last 3 years. In summary, not well. Using the ‘crazy man’ negotiating style may bring us right to the brink of a ruinous Brexit. One suspects that Johnson himself may be hoping that Westminster will block a catastrophic no-deal so that he can remain a Brexiteer hero whilst not crashing the country and laying the blame at the EU 27’s door.
Silly season already feels as though it might be longer this year. As with all clowns, there is menace alongside the slapstick.