Europe Politics

Boris Johnson looks for an EU ally in Merkel as he seeks to save Brexit

Key Points
  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday.
  • The meeting will be focused on Brexit.
  • Boris Johnson will aim to persuade Merkel to use her influence on the wider EU to change a crucial part of the Brexit deal.
OSAKA, JAPAN - JUNE 29: Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's President Emmanuel Macron talk with Argentina's President, Mauricio Macri, during the announcement of a trade agreement between the European Union and Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay on June 29, 2019 in Osaka, Japan.
Carl Court | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin Wednesday in his first official trip abroad as U.K. leader and one that will likely be all focused on Brexit.

Johnson will aim to persuade Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron who he's meeting on Thursday, to try to influence the wider EU to change a crucial part of the Brexit deal.

He hopes the EU might consider removing the contentious "backstop" plan, aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland, believing that its removal could give the deal on offer a better chance of being approved by the U.K. Parliament before a departure deadline of October 31.

Unfortunately for Johnson, analysts don't expect much movement on the issue from the EU or even Merkel, arguably the U.K.'s closest ally in Europe. The EU has consistently said it will not renegotiate the "backstop," it has also told Johnson that he has not proposed viable alternatives.

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"If Johnson hopes to persuade Merkel and Macron to sweet talk (Irish Prime Minister Leo) Varadkar into changing his tune, he will likely be disappointed," Kallum Pickering, senior economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note Tuesday.

"In contrast to the logic often portrayed in the British press, Berlin or other EU capitals are unlikely to exert heavy pressure on Dublin to yield. All of the EU's actions so far since the Brexit vote demonstrate that the EU's priority is the cohesion of the 27 — that means providing solidarity to smaller members such as the Republic of Ireland. The EU27 are ready to accept modest economic consequences in order to preserve that," he added. EU27 refers to the remaining 27 member states that would be left after the U.K leaves the bloc.

Letter to Europe

In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk late Monday, Johnson said the backstop was "anti-democratic" and called for it to be scrapped. Tusk, and the European Commission, responded by saying that Johnson had not offered viable alternatives to the plan.

German industry supports EU on Brexit renegotiations, BDI director says

The backstop would only be implemented if the U.K. and EU can't strike a trade deal within a 21-month transition period following the U.K.'s departure from the EU. But Pro-Brexit lawmakers don't like the backstop as they believe it would keep the country too closely linked to the EU's trading rules and unable to strike trade deals with other nations.

Joachim Lang, the director general of the influential lobby group Federation of German Industries (BDI), told CNBC Wednesday that the backstop should not be the main focus of talks right now.

"We have a fully negotiated withdrawal agreement on the table which is favorable for businesses on both sides of the channel. And the backstop rule is just an emergency clause that should never be used. There are much more important things that we should talk about, for instance, the future of a free trade agreement between the U.K. and EU."

Opposition to the backstop is seen as one of the main reasons that the Brexit deal on offer was rejected three times by the U.K. Parliament, which has to approve the deal.

The lack of agreement over the deal has made the prospect of a "no-deal" departure from the EU more likely, and the U.K. has stepped up preparations.

Johnson said Monday that a deal could still be reached if the EU removed the "backstop" and considered alternative solutions, such as technology, to the backstop border issue.

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