The menacing approach of the no-deal Brexit deadline on Oct. 31 has made everyone’s tone more and more hostile during these last dying embers of the negotiations.
According to a source in Downing Street, during a telephone conversation with Johnson on Tuesday morning, Merkel said that reaching an agreement was “overwhelmingly unlikely”—a leak that Berlin has carefully refrained from confirming or denying. Suspicions are growing that it was Johnson’s arch-strategist Dominic Cummings who was behind the leak, aiming to stoke the tensions as much as possible.
Merkel’s dire assessment was echoed by a tweet from European Commission President Donald Tusk, clearly at his wits’ end, topped off with a Latin reproach: “@BorisJohnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke [Article 50], quo vadis?”
Johnson may not know precisely where he’s going with all this, but the pound and the stock market have a clear direction: namely, spiraling downward. The more and more likely specter of a no-deal Brexit demands the rapid manufacturing of a scapegoat: no one wants to be seen as the one responsible.
Accordingly, Downing Street is protesting that at this point, an agreement is “essentially impossible” because the EU is not willing to budge an inch. Johnson is still bound by the Benn Act, which he has nicknamed “the surrender bill”: if no agreement is secured by Oct. 19, the date of the next EU summit, the law forces him to request an extension from Brussels—but nobody knows whether he will actually do this, or how.
Meanwhile, negotiations are officially still ongoing. The customary entreaties to get everyone to lower their tone are coming from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier—tweeting after a meeting with the Italian Minister of European Affairs, Vincenzo Amendola—and from Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. The latter has stressed that we should not pay heed to unconfirmed rumors: the Irish government is working at full steam with the EU to reach an agreement that would lead to an orderly Brexit on Oct. 31, but not at all costs. “The British government has responsibilities on the island of Ireland. A no-deal Brexit will not be Ireland’s choice, it will never be the EU’s choice. If it happens, it will be a decision made by the British government.”
With the swirling rumors playing down the possibility of an agreement—and with just 21 days to go before the fateful date—Chancellor Michael Gove, a former close friend to Johnson who is responsible for Brexit planning, presented the state of the government’s preparations in Parliament on Tuesday. His report on the preparations for no-deal, coming in at 159 pages, was aimed at convincing skeptics of the actual existence of the much-vaunted preparations for such an outcome, a topic on which the opposition has been blasting the government for a long time—particularly with regard to basic necessities such as food and medicines. To ensure the supply of the most important medicines, a support unit will be set up for drug suppliers, and the emergency storage of important drugs has already begun. As for the food supply, according to the Gove report there would be no serious shortages, just a smaller quantity of vegetables and fruit. The British national tax authority, the HMRC, has published a handbook aimed at informing 220,000 companies on how to deal with Brexit.
As for the free movement of persons, a no-deal Brexit would certainly put an end to it, and it would be replaced by January 2021 by a points system similar to the Australian one, based on “ability and talent.” After Oct. 31, the Europeans already resident in the UK “will continue to be able to work, study and have access to benefits and services,” such as health care. The deadline to request “settled status” will be Dec. 31, 2020. Those who want to enter after that date will have to apply for a temporary residence permit with an unintentionally ironic name: the so-called European Temporary Leave to Remain. Europeans will continue to be able to enter the UK with their ID cards until 2021.
Meanwhile, Labour is waging a full-on offensive against Johnson. Keir Starmer, the moderate Shadow Brexit Secretary who supports a second referendum, has openly accused the government of intentionally putting forward a set of unworkable proposals in order to exit on Oct. 31 without a deal. At the same time, the far-right Eurosceptic lunatic fringe who have now firmly grabbed the reins of the Conservative Party have an obvious target to blame for a no-deal outcome: Parliament, accused of having weakened London’s negotiating position with the “surrender act,” as Johnson has branded the law aimed at taking a no-deal outcome off the table.
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