The penny has finally dropped here in Berlin. After the Brexit party’s success in the European elections – and several missed Brexit deadlines later – most Germans are slowly realising that Brexit will happen. There are some who still hope that the offer of a new Brexit extension – as Ursula von der Leyen has indicated might be on offer – could mean a second referendum, or revocation of Article 50. But fewer now believe either of those remain realistic possibilities. And with Boris Johnson likely to be in Downing Street by tomorrow, these options become harder still to imagine.
One leader of the pro-EU movement here – who has been protesting relentlessly against Brexit – told me that he has now changed his mind: “Brexit needs to happen asap and then they can come back later”. Several leading politicians in Berlin have told me the same.
So what explains this change in thinking? First, there is an increasing realisation in Berlin that the Brexit limbo is proving damaging to both sides, both economically and politically. Certainty would mean everyone could start doing business again.
The Brexit party has also given some in Europe (but not yet everyone) a wake-up call. A customs union or Norway-plus deal would make hardly anyone happy. This would mean that the Brexit impasse continues. It would also ensure that Nigel Farage would have a reason to stick around and keep causing trouble.
What’s more, if Theresa May is (as looks almost certain) replaced by Boris Johnson tomorrow afternoon, this puts a severe dent in any hope of thwarting Brexit. With Boris in No.10, the choices on the negotiating table are much clearer: no deal, a new deal or no Brexit. A £39bn Brexit divorce bill is more attractive to Germans than the mess of a second referendum, which will likely cause only more division. It also looks like a safer bet than another election, in which Boris will probably become emboldened, only making life harder for the EU.
This means that the goal posts have shifted decisively. “Brexit is not worth fighting anymore”, one government official said to me last week. He speaks for many in Berlin: as long as the UK pays up and respects the integrity of the single market, most Germans will be satisfied. After all, the alternatives could be much worse.
Of course, publicly, for now we still hear the same line from Berlin as from the EU: the withdrawal agreement will not change. Yet the only way forward on Brexit is to find a breakthrough. Because the UK parliament is in stalemate, this means the EU needs to budge. Many Germans are starting to see this, which explains Angela Merkel’s slightly softer tone last week, when she indicated the backstop could be ‘overwritten’.
But, as we saw with Greece and the country’s debt crisis, neither the EU nor Germany likes to budge. Their most common fall-back position has been solidarity with Ireland: “Whatever they’ll do, we’ll do.” This begs the question: while Germany plays hardball over the backstop now, will it still do so when push comes to shove? Will the Irish really force the EU to play Russian roulette with no deal, even when the economic consequences of an acrimonious Brexit are taken into consideration?
Until now, the combination of weak leadership from Theresa May and parliament’s antics has done the EU’s dirty work for it in undermining the UK’s bargaining chips. This has made it rather easy for the EU to maintain a united position. But the elephant in the room is that Germany doesn’t want – and will almost certainly never allow – no deal.
We saw proof of this in the last two deadline extensions. Most Germans are too sensible: they understand the value of maintaining good relations with the UK. If Boris has the balls, the Germans know he can call their bluff, no matter what Ireland wants, because Germany still, ultimately, calls the shots.
For most people in Berlin, Jeremy Hunt is the preferred next British PM. He’s far more transparent and easier “to do business with”, as Hunt himself keeps saying. Of course, another likely reason that Hunt is favoured over Boris in Germany is because many suspect his heart isn’t really in Brexit. As with Theresa May, the hope is that he could be just another malleable remainer.
In stark contrast, Boris Johnson is largely disliked in Germany. But this might actually be something of an asset for Boris. After all, it can be useful not to be popular with the other side in negotiations. And Boris has two advantages that give him significantly more power at the negotiating table.
First, having led the 2016 referendum campaign and then resigned from May’s government, he has the legitimacy to seek a new deal that Hunt would not. The main argument I hear from Germans about Boris is that he was too cowardly to take responsibility for Brexit in 2016 and “ran away from the mess he created”. Well, now, he’s back in the game.
The EU can finally negotiate with the leader of the winning side in the referendum, so to speak, which actually makes negotiations easier for both parties. If Boris puts a united team together that is fully behind Brexit (which has thus far not happened), then this completely changes the whole dynamic of the Brexit negotiations. It will be clear to the EU – and to Germany – what the UK’s Brexit position is.
A second advantage, and far more important, is Boris’s personality. Nick Cohen says Germany could never produce a Boris. Yet this is precisely Boris’ trump card. His eccentricity, wit, intellect, ability to communicate, celebrity charisma and electability can all help charm the EU – and Germans – at the negotiating table. The Maybot had none of those qualities. Boris is funny, unpredictable and challenges the status quo, which makes him hugely underestimated (something we know he relishes).
More importantly, Boris has vision. This is a characteristic that few other politicians in Europe possess. No matter if you agree with that vision or not, it is an incredibly powerful tool for negotiations. So for as long as Boris maintains an optimism and positivity regarding the future relationship (with a hand of friendship to Germany), the EU will find it much more difficult to stall negotiations beyond 31 October. Boris could, perhaps ironically, be the person to win over the EU.
Joolz Gale is a British conductor based in Berlin