Boris Johnson is playing a big game with Brexit Crisette


Despite ‘constructive talks’ between the British and European Brexit negotiators, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to play hard. Yet it is precisely this ‘crisette’ that can force a breakthrough.

Boris Johnson wants to demonstrate that he has succeeded in pressing the reset button in the negotiations with Europe.

The British Prime Minister combines this negotiation strategy with a nationalist drum for his own audience: the British future outside the European Union will be one of roses and moonshine. The game of cat and mouse can take a few more days. Johnson is now very clearly looking for the incident with Europe. He wants to show that he has succeeded in pressing the reset button in the negotiations with Europe. Diplomats therefore do not speak of a major crisis in the negotiations but of a deliberately created ‘crisette’.


On Friday, Johnson responded with a harsh message from European leaders that London needed to move urgently. London had hoped European leaders would push for “intensive negotiations.” The lack of the word ‘intensive’ was seen as a hostile act in London. Johnson decided in extremis to cancel this week’s planned round of negotiations in London.

At the same time, London wanted to force the 27 member states to adjust the negotiating mandate of Barnier and his team. For the negotiations on fisheries, fair competition rules and unilateral sanction mechanisms, the three major bottlenecks in the talks, Barnier cannot strike a deal on the basis of this tight, unattainable mandate. With regard to fair competition, the mandate demands that the United Kingdom fully reflects European rules. For fisheries, Europe wants to maintain the current access to British waters and catch quotas.

Negotiating a trade agreement makes no sense if Europe does not recognize British sovereignty.

Michael Gove

British Secretary of Cabinet Affairs

Monday was another day of nail biting and conflicting messages. Boris Johnson decided to play even longer. Telephone consultations between the two negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Frost, were ‘constructive’.

It is also informally shifting in London: there are signs that the controversial Brexit law, which allows British judges and the government to interpret the separation agreement with the European Union, can be readjusted. An agreement with the British also seems closer on the organization of European supervision of customs and VAT rules in Northern Irish ports and airports.

Question mark

But there will be no resumption of the negotiations for the time being. In a speech before the British Parliament, Michael Gove, the number two in the government, disbanded his demons. “Negotiating a trade agreement makes no sense if Europe does not recognize British sovereignty.”

During that speech, Michel Barnier tweeted that “he confirms that Europe remains available for intensive discussions with London on all topics and based on legal texts.” Gove “welcomed the constructive movement of Europe”. But Johnson keeps the signal on red.

EU sources hope for a breakthrough by granting the British the ‘victory’ of having texts on the table. Barnier was given enough flexibility by European leaders on Thursday to go beyond his mandate. The big question is whether Johnson wants a deal.

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