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LONDON: Boris Johnson will tell Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron that there must be a new Brexit deal when he makes his first trip abroad as Prime Minister.

Johnson will make clear to the French president and German chancellor that Britain will leave the European Union on October 31 with or without a deal.The PM, who is heading to Berlin on Wednesday and Paris on Thursday, is expected to say that Parliament will not and cannot cancel the outcome of the EU referendum.

Source

Given that all remaining 27 nations of the EU need to approve the withdrawal agreement, why is Boris Johnson only visiting France and Germany? Sure, they're the most powerful members of the EU, but whatever Boris Johnson negotiates with Angela Markel and Emmanuel Macron can still be vetoed by any of the remaining 25 nations of the EU.

Presumably because he needs to convince all 27 countries simultaneously, it would be best to involve all of them in the same negotiations, at which point he might as well not visit at all and host a Skype conference call or something.

  • Comments deleted. Please don't answer the question using comments. If you would like to answer, please post a real answer which adheres to our quality standards. – Philipp Aug 22 at 8:32
  • The Withdrawal Agreement doesn’t need unanimity, just a qualified majority. – Mike Scott Aug 22 at 16:22
  • @MikeScott are you sure? Theresa May's withdrawal agreement seemed so comprehensive that it should be a mixed agreement requiring unanimity. – Allure Aug 23 at 3:12
  • @Allure Yes, I’m certain. “It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.“ That kind of agreement would normally need unanimity, but a Withdrawal Agreement under Article 50 is a special case. It’s why it will be much harder for the UK to get the same deal if it leaves with no deal and then negotiates. – Mike Scott Aug 23 at 6:05

10 Answers 10

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I'm not sure you'll get a specific sourced answer for this question, so I'll attempt to answer in generalities.

France and Germany are often seen as the driving forces behind the EU project. Along with the UK and Italy, these are the Big Four European nations, contributing highly to the EU budget and EU GDP.

A quick search of EU related headlines will find that the opinions of France and Germany are generally more prominent than those of other countries, and they are often highlighted as leaders of one position or another.

Disagreements Agenda EU Commission

Germany

Specifically in relation to Brexit, a common leaver position has been that German Industry, specifically car manufacturing, will prevent a no-deal Brexit and cause the EU to blink because of the size of the UK market.

Fatal Consequences

Cars for Free Trade; David Davis

Post #Brexit a UK-German deal would include free access for their cars and industrial goods, in exchange for a deal on everything else.

This tweet is most interesting, as it came just before David Davis became the first Brexit Secretary, in charge of the UK/EU negotiation.

France

On the opposite side President Macron has been the most outspoken EU leader expressing frustration that Brexit has not yet been dealt with. Arguing for a Short Extension back in May.

Ireland

In addition to these two sides Mr Johnson has already reached out to the taoiseach regarding the NI/Republic of Ireland border issue, the biggest sticking point in the negotiations so far.

It appears that Mr Johnson feels that if he can convince these three to agree with his position, the rest of the EU will fall into line.

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    @Allure It's not impossible, if Ireland is involved. Otherwise, it would look like France and Germany are sacrificing a “small” member for their own benefit and that's something many other countries would object on principle. And until now the new British cabinet does not seem to engage very effectively with Ireland. – Relaxed Aug 21 at 12:04
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    @Jontia, that is the point. France and Germany cannot agree to anything on their own, so he gets to blame them at home for their unwillingness to negotiate. It's also calculated to create unrest within the EU by insinuating that the other states are vassals to France and Germany. – Simon Richter Aug 21 at 14:34
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    @KevinMcKenzie that was part of the point I was making. – Jontia Aug 22 at 5:15
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    @Allure Saying they will "fall into line" is perhaps not the best way to phrase it. All of the EU members have had enough time to ponder Brexit and none of them have raised any individual blocking issues, with the exception of Ireland and their border. In other words, no-one needs to "fall in line" because the EU has already reached a rough consensus and is already on one single line. So unless something new gets put on the table that is totally unacceptable for a nation, no issues are expected. – Falc Aug 22 at 13:57
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    @Falc there's no indication that Ireland would accept a solution that threatens the common market. The common market is a benefit to being in the EU, Ireland has no more reason to accept a solution that threatens it than France/Germany. – Jontia Aug 22 at 15:01
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It is difficult to tell why Johnson really does things, since he is a serial liar with opaque motives even by the low standards of British politics.

However, from various other public statements, we can work out Brexit doctrine. The belief seems to be that the EU is an asymmetric power structure with Germany on top and France second, and that all the other countries will be told what to do by them. This is part of the Brexit argument: since the UK is not running Europe, some other country must be, and this is intolerable.

The negotiation strategy will probably be the "they want to sell us cars" one for Germany, pointing out how many BMW sales are to the UK, and for France will likely center around the disruption at Calais.

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    "This is part of the Brexit argument: since the UK is not running Europe, some other country must be, and this is intolerable." This is the first time I've heard this argument. Interesting. – ouflak Aug 20 at 19:36
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    This post comes across as biased to me. Perhaps using more neutral language would be better. – Omegastick Aug 21 at 4:26
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    @ouflak I've stated it baldly, but variations on "EU is run by Germany" are all over Brexiteer statements and have been for years. This got much wider traction during the Euro crisis of 2008 and afterwards. – pjc50 Aug 21 at 9:36
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    @ChrisMelville you mean the EU commissioners who are agreed by the same heads of state that voters in every country put into office? It's not like it's a cabal in a shadowy room somewhere, it is the heads of state of each EU country. If the electorate has zero power over the choices of their heads of state, that's not the fault of the EU. And then the whole slate has to be agreed by the directly elected MEPs. What more do you want? A directly elected commission would hand power to the largest countries without any attempt at balance. – Jontia Aug 21 at 14:14
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    @ChrisMelville Each MP only has a tiny influence on the government as a whole, in that they are unable to appoint any ministers, and unlikely to be able to prevent unpalateable appointments whose interests do not align with their constituents' interests. A constituency, region or even entire nation within the UK may suffer grievous injuries howsoever it may vote; that is the price of being in a union. – James Aug 21 at 15:14
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Boris Johnson is a hard Brexiteer, he made no mystery of the fact that he is happy to make the UK leave the EU without a deal. Therefore his visits are not meant to convince anybody in the EU, especially since there's absolutely no indication at all that the EU would budge (quite the opposite). There's also no concrete indication of what he proposes instead of the backstop.

Boris Johnson's visits are very likely intended as part of a political plan in which:

  • He appears to seek a new deal with the EU, but the EU refuses so he can paint them as the bad guys (in the very unlikely event of the EU accepting, this would be a heroic victory for him anyway)
  • He appears as someone who doesn't compromise the interests of the UK, brave enough to take the risk of a hard Brexit. He probably wants to spin this as "the UK is ready to make sacrifices for its freedom", an idea which is reminiscent of the special role the UK had in World War II.
  • If he manages to project this image, he can appeal to the patriotic values of all the UK nationals: "Unite behind me against the tyranny of the EU", something along these lines.
  • As expected, the UK will crash out of the EU. Parliament elections are very likely to happen either shortly before or shortly after, and he hopes to capitalize on his image as a hero to win them.
  • He might truly believe that his government will be able to obtain better trade deals with other countries after that (one may note the similarity with another president who was very confident about his own trade skills).

It is also worth mentioning that the EU designated a representative for the Brexit negotiations and insisted that the UK should deal with them and not with individual countries. So even if he really intended to re-negotiate, Boris Johnson would have no reason to visit every EU country.

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    Boris Johnson is a hard Brexiteer Actually he is a man without any convictions and could have played a remainer just as well if only he had hope it would bring him to no 10 – TaW Aug 22 at 7:41
8

You cannot really negotiate by Skype with 20-30 heads of state or government directly. The process set up by the EU (for Brexit but also for trade deals) is to appoint a negotiating team with an explicit mandate adopted by the 27. For internal negotiations, the work is prepared by bodies like the COREPER (where everybody is around the table but not necessarily fully equal in the discussion) and heads of government only get involved when everything is agreed (or perhaps a few contentious questions need a decision at the highest level).

In this context, it's important to remember that EU officials (Barnier - the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Juncker, and Tusk) are generally presented as inflexible and uncooperative by leading conservative (especially pro-Brexit) policians. The UK has since the beginning of the process been trying to circumvent them (from the numerous public declarations on the German car industry to Theresa May “make me an offer“ discussions with Merkel). It would seem that Johnson is still trying a variant of this strategy or at least wants to be seen doing that.

There are also more practical considerations. British prime ministers often visit Germany and France (in that order) early on in their premiership (Brown took office on June 27, 2007, visited Germany on July 16; Cameron: May 11, 2010, trip to Germany and France on May 20-21; May: July 13, 2016 and July 20-21). Johnson also had to go to France for the G7 meeting so it only makes sense for all parties to add a one-to-one meeting with Macron to that trip and to go to Berlin first for balance. Anything else (not extending an invitation or refusing it) would be widely seen as a deliberate snub and undermine everybody's claim that they are still ready to make a deal and the other party is being unreasonable.

Finally, it's presumably not anyone's main focus under the circumstances but they would have many bilateral issues to discuss beside EU matters concerning all 27/28 members. Interestingly, it would even make sense if both parties had officially admited they are OK with no deal: some of the most critical border infrastructure for the UK are actually in France.

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I am not sure how seriously the question was asked, but anyway...

While the current POTUS made his first overseas visit in a form of a tour, starting from Saudi-Arabia, in many countries, typically [maybe also in this case with Mr. Trump...] the chosen destination of the first official foreign visit has symbolic importance, and often takes place to e.g. an important neighboring country. I would have thought that each "conventional" POTUS would first visit Canada, but after checking found out that actually e.g. George W. Bush visited first Mexico, and Canada came only second.

Yes, the EU currently requires unanimous decisions on many matters, which, some think, is a problem. But that does not mean that Boris Johnson is personally visiting each country with the purpose of negotiating Brexit with the leaders of each country. Also, while he will of course also be visiting other EU countries, there is no "ceremonial duty" to visit all of them once getting into office, and, he will have plenty of chances to meet everyone during the numerous summits he will attend regardless if/when Brexit finally happens.

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    (+1) Great point, the Germany-France combo has almost become a tradition at this point, diverging from it would certainly be seen as a big thing. – Relaxed Aug 21 at 9:53
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While Jontia's answer cover the main reason to discuss Brexit issues with Germany and France before other EU members, there is also another topic at hand: namely the G7 taking place at the end of this week in France.

The G7 consists of Canada, USA, Japan, UK, Germany, France and Italy. Italy is in a political limbo due to the resignation of Conte (Italy's Prime Minister). Thus meeting Merkel and Macron allows to address both the Brexit, European politics as well as prepare for the G7 meeting.

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Whilst the other answers are correct in saying that France and Germany are important players in deciding whether there will be a new withdrawal agreement, there are other reasons for him to talk to those governments, even about Brexit.

For example, some things which are part of the withdrawal agreement now will become national competencies after a no-deal Brexit. UK citizens' rights in EU countries is one of those - EU countries mostly decide their non-EU visa policies independently, not collectively (including in Schengen countries when it comes to work visas).

Then there are things that are or are partly national competencies and not addressed in the withdrawal agreement. Freight vehicle traffic is one of these. There's an EU-level offer of allowing British lorries to pick up and drop off goods in the EU for nine months after a no-deal Brexit. After that it's known only that there's a Europe-level agreement (bigger than the EU) providing a small number of permits for UK lorries. The government's position on this appears to include trying to negotiate bilateral agreements on this to improve this situation.

Port and customs capacity is also important, so are fishing rights (French fishermen have threatened to disrupt port traffic if they can't access UK waters) as no doubt are many other things that are outside the withdrawal agreement.

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In addition to what the other answers have said it is worth pointing out that Merkel and Macron are very well aware of what the rest of the EU countries are thinking about this. For instance, they know that there is no point making some deal which affects Gibraltar in a way that Spain would not allow even it would make no difference to France or Germany as individual countries.

They also know what went on during the nearly three years of negotiating up until this date and even though Johnson appears to want to ignore all of that he actually knows that he can't.

So, this isn't an attempt to negotiate with France and Germany independently but an effort to get an idea of that can and can't be done from two people who are very well positioned to know.

  • Why Merkel and Macron then? Why not Tusk? – Allure Aug 22 at 19:06
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    You'd have to ask Johnson. I assume because, having spent spent a very long time complaining about eurocrats, he feels that it will look better to have bilateral important national leader to leader talks. – Eric Nolan Aug 22 at 20:27
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Because only Germany, France and Ireland have raised objections

It's likely due to the fact that Germany has aired opposition to scrapping the backstop, and France has threatened a perpetual temporary customs union backstop over a dispute regarding fishing rights. Besides Ireland, which Boris has also spoken with, and Spain, which the UK already reached an agreement with, there doesn't appear to be any other European countries airing opposition to a change in the deal regarding the backstop, so Boris doesn't need to visit any other EU countries.

To get a change through, however, Boris needs unanimous support (not simply a majority), so effectively, Germany, France and Ireland have a veto vote, and thus he must appeal to these countries directly in order to have a chance of getting the deal through.

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    (-1) There is also zero indication that other countries would be comfortable with getting rid of the backstop. And Northern Ireland is part of the UK, this trip was not about engaging with the Republic of Ireland. The only contact at the prime minister was by phone and it didn't seem to go that well. – Relaxed Aug 22 at 20:09
  • @Relaxed The link for Ireland has been updated to a more explicit version: "Johnson ‘accepts offer’ to meet Taoiseach to discuss Brexit". Your demand of proof for comfort is a ridiculous one, countries won't explicitly say 'I'm comfortable with this'; you must prove that countries are uncomfortable by showing they have complained (like France and Germany have). Boris is not psychic. – SSight3 Aug 22 at 21:15
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    I am not asking for proof, just a sign or indication. In fact, your logic is not wrong but the onus is on you to prove that any EU country is uncomfortable with the official French, German and EU stance. If there was any interest in ditching the backstop, they would have signaled it, precisely because their silence means they are OK with the EU's direction of travel. That's certainly what happens when France and Germany try to push things other EU members don't like. Otherwise, it's not reasonable to assume they hold the opposite position. – Relaxed Aug 22 at 22:22
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    Also, this impression that it's just France and Germany might also just be an artifact of the news you and I can read and follow. I don't speak Spanish or Greek or Romanian or Swedish but a quick search in Dutch reveals that their prime minister just said he “sees no reason for new negotiation”, not exactly an endorsement of a new withdrawal agreement sans backstop. – Relaxed Aug 22 at 22:24
-1

In Boris' mind Germany and France are running the show. I suppose he believed a bit too much of his own nonsense, as it's the kind of thing he used to write about the EU when he was a journalist.

The conspiracy theory he pushed was that Germany and France were running the show and had all the power. Most assumed he knew he was lying, and perhaps he does... It could just be a stunt, all part of laying the blame for a no-deal crash at the feet of the EU.

It's also possible that having got nowhere with the Irish he is now looking for other options.

  • Any reason for this down vote? – user Aug 20 at 15:23
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    I downvoted: This stack is unusually heavy in fact-free opinion answers and this particular answer is even more unusually fact-free and opinion based. And perjorative. Adds nothing to the discussion. Does that help? – davidbak Aug 20 at 16:21
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    This should be sourcable. Johnson's columns are surely available somewhere and the pivot to blame EU for already has some sources in This Answer – Jontia Aug 20 at 19:18
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    He is by far not the only person in Europe who sees Germany (and maybe France) as running the show. MEP Martin Sonneborn (German, satire party DIE PARTEI) often sums up what many people on Germany feel but don't dare to write down as "we are for a strong core Europe with 27 satellite countries". In case you don't get the joke: The EU has 28 countries... – Tom Aug 22 at 9:50

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