How Boris Johnson's push towards a no-deal Brexit is playing out in the EU

Anti-Brexit protesters attend a demonstration in London.
Anti-Brexit protesters attend a demonstration in London.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (WASHINGTON POST) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to send Parliament packing in the crucial weeks leading up to Britain's October departure from the European Union has left European policymakers and businesses bracing for a chaotic break, as more and more people give up hope that the split will be eased by a transition deal.

EU authorities in Brussels are considering whether to free up emergency funds that are typically given to countries hit by natural disasters. French customs authorities are drilling on how to enforce border checks that haven't been in place in decades. European citizens living in Britain are fretfully checking to make sure their legal status to work doesn't disappear overnight.

Are there any conversations between the EU and UK in the first place?

Johnson is warning rebellious Conservative lawmakers that if they vote to tie his hands and prevent a no-deal Brexit, they will harm the progress he says he is making in discussions with Brussels.

"Our friends and partners are increasingly seeing the possibilities of an agreement," Johnson told Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 3). He said that his opponents "want to force us to beg for yet another pointless delay. If that happens, all the progress that we have been making will have been for nothing."

But the warning may actually be based on an inaccuracy. European policymakers say that minimal discussion is taking place. After meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron last month, Johnson promised to come up with an alternative proposal to keep open the Irish border - a major sticking point in the negotiations.

Is Johnson right that he has the European Union running scared?

Many European policymakers have been resigned to Brexit turmoil since Johnson ascended to power in July. They remember his 2016 role as a key Brexit advocate ahead of the EU referendum, and they held out little hope for a new approach that would make the split any easier.

But some of them also felt that Johnson's glad-handing approach to politics might make it easier for him to win backing from Parliament than his stiff predecessor, Theresa May.

That flicker of optimism has mostly been extinguished.

Neither Macron nor Merkel wants to be left holding the bag for a no-deal Brexit, fearful of the political baggage if Johnson succeeds in pinning them with the blame for a chaotic fallout after a split.

But neither sees much room for manoeuvring. Neither they nor other EU leaders are willing to favour a departing member, Britain, over a faithful ally, Ireland, whose leaders dearly want to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland - one threat of Brexit. It's a matter of principle, and one that Johnson seems to be underestimating.

So far, Ireland has shown little willingness to back down.

And even if Britain holds a general election in the weeks ahead of the Oct 31 Brexit deadline, it may simply put the country on autopilot toward a no-deal departure, rather than help avert it, analysts say.

What will a no-deal Brexit look like for Europe on Nov 1?

A no-deal Brexit will be chaotic in ways both predictable and impossible to foresee. France has hired an extra 700 customs agents, and Belgium and the Netherlands have each hired hundreds more to conduct checks of goods coming from and going to Britain.

Leaders have tried to calm worries.

 
 
 
 

But the sudden new border will be a major challenge. Small- and medium-sized businesses will get especially hard-hit, analysts say, since it makes little economic sense for a small company to hire someone to handle the consequences of a no-deal Brexit when it is still unclear whether that will happen.

"Smaller businesses who are firefighting many other changes have taken the view that there's nothing they can do to prepare for Brexit," said Paul Hardy, the Brexit director at DLA Piper, a law firm.

Some policies are still up for grabs. The previous British government had said that it would be generous toward EU citizens who wanted to travel to Britain for business. Johnson's allies have suggested they could be far tougher about visas and other bureaucracy, unsettling businesses and raising the possibility of tit-for-tat reprisals from EU countries against British nationals.

What is the EU doing to get ready for a no-deal Brexit?

For nearly a year, EU policymakers have been readying emergency regulations that would seek to minimise chaos for the remaining 27 EU countries if Britain departs without a deal. They say they are ready.

The measures wouldn't fully avoid the pain of a British departure. But they would help keep the planes in the air between the European Union and Britain - something that would otherwise be in doubt.

But in a sign that there may be some lingering questions about whether EU countries are ready for no-deal confusion, an unusual message popped up last week on an EU regulatory website: Senior officials will soon consider whether to modify emergency-relief funding rules to allow EU countries to tap into disaster aid in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The money is more usually used to deal with floods and earthquakes.

So is the European Union ready?

"Honestly, how can you prepare for this as a small company? You hire someone to do this and if there's a deal you lay them off?" asked Guntram Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based economy-focused think-tank.

Many EU policymakers say they are ready and bracing.

But one former British ambassador to the European Union, Ivan Rogers, wrote in an essay published Monday in the Spectator that both sides were missing the point.

The chaos unleashed by a no-deal Brexit on Nov. 1 will just be the beginning, wrote Rogers, who was the senior British diplomat in Brussels at the time of the Brexit referendum.

"We should be thinking 10 to 20 years ahead, not 10 weeks," Rogers wrote.