A new EU leadership team is preparing for office in Brussels. The chances that they will support more generous Brexit terms for a UK government led by Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt lie somewhere between remote and non-existent.
Ursula von der Leyen, the nominee for European Commission president, was scathing last year about Brexit. She called it a “burst bubble of hollow promises . . . inflated by populism . . . castles in the air”.
Two years before she became Germany’s defence minister in 2013, Ms von der Leyen spoke in favour of a “United States of Europe” modelled on the federal systems of Germany, Switzerland and the US.
This makes her an object of deep suspicion among diehard UK Conservative party Brexiters. However, like most German politicians since her country’s unification in 1990, she pays lip service to a politically united Europe but does little about it in practice.
On Brexit she steers closely to the line of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ms von der Leyen warned in April that a hard Brexit would be “the worst possible start” to the close EU-UK long-term relationship that Berlin wants.
Ms von der Leyen said on Wednesday that she was open to extending the Brexit deadline: “If the United Kingdom needs more time, I think that’s the right way to go.” She told a British MEP: “Though I still hope you remain, it is in our interests to have you sort things out.”
Her views are softer than those of Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister. He will replace Donald Tusk as head of the European Council, which groups EU government leaders. On Brexit Mr Michel said in February that “between a ‘no deal’ and a bad deal, I prefer a ‘no deal’, which will have the merit of clarity and responsibility”.
Mr Michel sounds tougher than Mr Tusk, who, like most central and eastern European leaders, was aghast at the UK’s vote in 2016 to leave the EU. As council president, Mr Tusk supported a long extension of the Brexit deadline, perhaps hoping to secure an eventual reversal of the UK’s decision.
Georgina Wright at the Institute for Government makes the point that Ms von der Leyen, if confirmed as the next commission president, will not take office until November 1 — in other words, after the UK’s latest Brexit deadline of October 31. Mr Michel will not assume his duties until December 1.
It follows that, if Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt sincerely believe they can extract concessions from the EU on Theresa May’s Brexit deal before October 31, they will face the same EU negotiators who gave nothing of substance to Mrs May this year.
Another factor, almost lost from sight in the Conservative party’s leadership contest, is that the EU’s approach to Brexit has been guided all along by Ms Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and other national leaders.
They are unanimous in the view that the withdrawal deal agreed with Mrs May in November last year cannot be changed.
However, if the British parliament passes this deal, or something very close to it, the EU leaders may offer to extend the UK’s post-Brexit transition period beyond 2022, as Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group argues.
Moreover, in the event that the UK’s political circumstances change significantly between now and October 31, another time-limited Brexit extension is likely.
Nonetheless, respect for British politicians in continental Europe has rarely been as low as today for Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt.
As Christoph Meyer of dpa, the German news agency, wrote (here in German) after Tuesday’s televised debate between the two contenders: “Boris Johnson, the favourite, doesn’t think much of facts. His opponent Jeremy Hunt remains colourless.”
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