Pieter Cleppe: Johnson does not see 'no deal' as his Plan A

It is his Plan B, but at least he is willing to implement it, if renegotiation of Theresa May's withdrawal deal fails

Pieter Cleppe

None of the sides are prepared for 'no deal'. So now British citizens in the European Union can only base their hope on some promises, like those from the prime ministers of Belgium and Portugal, for example. The situation of the more than three million European citizens in the UK is also uncertain. Nevertheless, I do think this will be sorted very quickly as a priority in case of 'no deal', says Pieter Cleppe, Head of Open Europe Brussels office, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Cleppe, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen is active dealing with formation of the 2019-2024 Commission. In your view, is it a mistake that the UK will not nominate a new commissioner to the EU as it prepares to leave on 31 October?

I think it might be wise to nominate the current commissioner just in case the UK stays a little bit longer. The UK doesn't really have much to lose. On the other hand, if the intension of Boris Johnson is to make clear to the EU that the UK is actually leaving, then of course this leads to reaction that concentrates minds in Brussels. We can argue it both ways.

You recently said it's good that von der Leyen is open for Brexit day extension, but why do you think her stance on Brexit might not differ much from current EC President Jean-Claude Juncker?

To be honest, I don't think it's going to be a big difference with her. She is also a federalist just like Jean-Claude Juncker. She has indicated that she could be flexible. Juncker has shown some flexibility as well, but the big problem is with the Member States, not so much the European Commission. So far Member States have been inflexible, in particular Ireland, and that's really what matters, not really who is in charge of the European Commission, because it ultimately executes the will of the Member States.

For some observers it seems very uncertain that the UK will leave on 31 October. What do you think about the timing?

The timing is a result of a compromise between the EU leaders. Emmanuel Macron was against a long extension of over a year, so at the end they decided on Halloween's date. It was a lot shorter, about six months. I think time is not the biggest problem. It's more that both sides are quite far apart in terms of content. If there is a deal before that, and if then it is a problem of time, I do think the UK will agree to a technical extension. Even if the UK said they won't, I think they will.

What is, according to you, Boris Johnson's game with the suspension of UK's Parliament?

His goal is to reduce the options to only two - first of all 'no deal'. Second - renegotiating the deal that Theresa May negotiated. I think he is succeeding in that, because it looks much harder now for the Parliament to block his preparedness for 'no deal'. Boris Johnson does not see 'no deal' as his Plan A, it is his Plan B, but at least he is willing to implement this Plan B if Plan A fails. Many in Parliament would not agree with the Plan B, they want to prevent it from being implemented. The Parliament and Boris Johnson agree that ideally there should be a deal. The reason why he suspended the Parliament is that the more likely you make it that the other side think that you are ready to go for 'no deal', the more likely it will be that there will be a deal.

The prorogation provoked a very strong backlash in the House of Commons. How correct is the position of his opponents who called this move a “constitutional outrage”?

It started very complicated, and I don't think it is easy to judge as it is the British constitutional law. They may have an unwritten constitution but it does not mean that you can just do everything and anything. On whether this action was legal and constitutional, a few days ago a Scottish judge ruled against complaints that tried to argue that this was illegal and unconstitutional. This I think was an important fact to take into account. The Scottish leader has been using very strong words, like “this is the end of democracy in the UK”, but apparently one Scottish judge disagrees with her. Also, and this is of course the argument of Boris Johnson, there have been precedents. Every time there is a Queen's Speech, there is a prorogation of the Parliament. John Major also has prorogued the Parliament, according to some people, in order to gain something particular. It is clear that Boris Johnson does this to achieve a certain political purpose. At the end of the day it looks like what the UK government has done looks perfectly constitutional and perfectly legal. Perhaps even more importantly, the Parliament can still do something. Boris Johnson could have prorogued until 6 November, and he did not do that.

What are the possible scenarios for the Parliament?

If Parliament wants to avoid a 'no deal' exit at all cost, it can revoke Article 50, the request to leave the EU. Another option is that they can try to bring down Johnson's government. They would have a majority and they could agree on a caretaker PM with only one job, which would be to make sure there is a new election.

Is Johnson's warning, that with 'no deal' exit the UK will not pay the divorce bill, just a trick to urge Brussels to soften its position and become prone to reopen the withdrawal negotiations?

It is definitely part of a very transparent strategy, which means making clear to the EU what is going to happen if they continue to refrain to talk. Recently Commissioner Oettinger, responsible for the EU budget, expressed fears that the UK can get away from the EU without paying what the Union considers to be their fair share, and no legal challenge would be possible. But the exit bill, or - to be precise - the financial settlement, is part of the overall withdrawal agreement.

Indeed, does the British prime minister have any chances to reach a new Brexit agreement with Brussels?

I think so. The EU has now finally admitted that they are open to changing the withdrawal agreement. For a long time they stuck to an extreme position, insisting that they cannot even open it. They said we have our red lines. That is fair enough, as everybody has their red lines, but it is another thing to say we will not change a letter and we will not even try to achieve those red lines in a different way. I think they will offer something to Boris Johnson, but it is hard to say now. Ireland is not moving at all and of course this country holds all the keys, and I think it will be very hard for the other European countries to push Ireland to agree. It is just my guess, but I think the Irish government is considering to move. I may be wrong, but in my view they realise more than anybody else what the stakes are.

How big can be the real dimensions of the risk for the citizens on both sides?

On this topic, things have been sorted in very different ways in various Member States. The UK has proposed an arrangement to the EU, specifically sorting out citizens rights separately, providing 100% legal certainty, so the people should not be afraid from a 'no deal'. The European Union unfortunately refused that. None of the sides are prepared for 'no deal'. So now British citizens in the European Union can only base their hope on some promises, like those from the prime ministers of Belgium and Portugal, for example. The situation of the more than three million European citizens in the UK is also uncertain. Nevertheless, I do think this will be sorted very quickly as a priority in case of 'no deal'.

There were media reports that the British government has tried to downplay leaked classified reports that warned how ill-prepared it is for food and medicine shortages, transport disruption and many others in case of hard Brexit. Could it be so disastrous?

Exactly, there are many risks related to 'no deal'. All the things you mentioned are tied to trade and of course ultimately affect the people. Some things have been sorted, for example financial clearing, some aspects of aviation, but many things are not sorted. Fishermen entering the UK waters in a 'no deal' context will be acting illegally and the UK government is in theory forced to go after them. Likewise, British companies transferring British products into the EU are also not covered. Even if the customs bureaucracy would be sorted, many of those products would be illegal for EU countries to import. Even in the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, they are not properly ready. And that is in the country in the EU that has taken most preparations, for example hiring new veterinary inspectors. This all is worrying, and of course will affect the citizens of the UK, but also the European countries, especially the Benelux, France, Germany, and mostly Ireland. Ireland could be harmed economically harder than the UK, and 'no deal' may even cause tensions between Ireland and the other EU countries when those would be pushing Ireland to check the EU's internal border, something that may endanger peace if done in a brutal manner.

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Pieter Cleppe is the Head of the Brussels office of Open Europe, an independent policy think tank providing an intellectual framework for thinking about Britain's new relationship with the European Union and its role in the world. He is a frequent contributor to the debates on the EU reform, the refugee crisis and the euro crisis. A trained lawyer, Pieter Cleppe previously practiced law in Belgium and has worked as a cabinet adviser to the Belgian State Secretary for Administrative Reform. Prior to this, he served as an analyst at Belgium's Itinera Institute, which he helped to establish. He received his legal training at the Catholic University of Leuven and has also studied law and economics at the universities of Hamburg, Bologna and Vienna.

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