Boris Johnson will make his debut as UK prime minister on the world stage this week, first by travelling to Berlin for talks with chancellor Angela Merkel and also to Paris to meet President Emmanuel Macron, before appearing at the G7 summit of world leaders in south-west France.
Senior officials in Downing Street acknowledge it will be a “big week” for Mr Johnson as he presents his vision for the future of Britain.
“He will be taking the message of Britain’s new global outlook, a strong stance on the environment and biodiversity. It won’t all be about Brexit, but we’ll be sure to remind people of our accelerated work to leave come what may,” said one Number 10 insider.
Mr Johnson will deliver an uncompromising message: ignore the chatter about parliament moving to stop a no-deal Brexit, the UK is leaving on October 31 with or without a deal. Mindful of how MPs undermined his predecessor Theresa May’s negotiating stance on Brexit, the prime minister hopes to leave the EU in no doubt about his determination to leave the bloc.
“The key message will be: if you’re watching what’s going on in parliament and think it will stop Brexit and you don’t need to negotiate with us, don’t be mistaken. The prime minister will give a very clear message: we are leaving, we’re gone on October 31,” said a Downing Street official. “Some [leaders] are concluding that Brexit might still be stopped. It won’t.”
Those close to the prime minister said his stance remains that he will not formally discuss Brexit until the Irish border backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a hard border with Ireland, is removed from the withdrawal agreement.
Mr Johnson will also seek to discuss other “critical” issues on his European tour, including security, climate change and the stability of the global financial system.
But he is likely to meet with short shrift from fellow EU leaders. There is no indication they will shift from their longstanding position that while the agreement on future relations is very much subject to discussion, the withdrawal deal will not be reopened. One senior EU official said it was up to Mr Johnson to come to the G7 with a credible proposal to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“The first thing to know is what detailed plan on avoiding a hard border Johnson has in mind — a plan that is compatible with the existing withdrawal agreement,” the official said.
“We are braced for a no-deal outcome — whether by intent or by accident,” another senior EU official said, adding that the message from London of pushing for no-deal if necessary had come through “loud and clear”.
EU diplomats are keen to appear reasonable so as to thwart what they see as Mr Johnson’s strategy of building a narrative for his domestic audience that the bloc is being intransigent and would be to blame for any no-deal Brexit disruption.
“No one from the EU side is thinking, ‘right, he’s ready to negotiate,’” the second senior official said. “A lot of it has been a blame game. On the EU27 side there is a strong suspicion that the [UK] purpose at the G7 is not to scope out the possibility of a deal, but to demonstrate the EU is being inflexible. The EU doesn’t want to be seen as intransigent, but rather as solid and strong on its position.”
In Berlin, the mood music is pessimistic ahead of Mr Johnson’s visit on Wednesday — with no one expecting a breakthrough at either the bilateral meeting or the G7. Preparations are intensifying for the UK leaving without a deal. According to a leaked internal finance ministry document, the German government thinks there is now a “high probability” of a no-deal.
Officials in Berlin are taking the prime minister at his word. “When he says he is sticking to the Brexit deadline ‘come what may’, then we have to believe him,” said one. But there remains no appetite for opening up the withdrawal agreement.
Ms Merkel said she was “glad” Mr Johnson was making the visit and she was hopeful that the UK would not crash out of the bloc. “We are prepared for any outcome, we can say that, even if we do not get an agreement. But at all events I will make an effort to find solutions — up until the last day of negotiations,” she said on Sunday.
German business is beginning to think a hard Brexit might be the best outcome. “Companies want clarity,” said a German official. “It’s just not tenable to keep extending the Brexit deadline every couple of months.” The Germans have been planning for a hard Brexit for months and consider themselves well prepared.
The French government confirmed on Monday that Mr Johnson would meet Mr Macron in Paris on Thursday before the G7 in Biarritz. The Elysée said Mr Macron and Mr Johnson would have a working lunch to discuss Brexit, as well as bilateral ties and Iran. Like Germany, France maintains it does not want a “no-deal” Brexit but is ready for it. The French government has allocated €50m to hire new customs and veterinary officers and build new facilities for its channel ports.
“The withdrawal agreement is an agreement,” Europe minister Amélie de Montchalin told the FT last month. “It wasn’t imposed on the UK. It’s on the table, the fruit of two and a half years of work, imposed by no one. It’s not open to renegotiation precisely because we worked to make it a balanced outcome.
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